There were times when documentary films could be an economically self-sufficient element of the cinema industry. But after the rise of TV networks and later the internet, documentaries on the big screen have become something of a redundant form for too many viewers. Today, small national markets tied up with a small language, like Czech, for instance, sell several hundred or at best a few thousand tickets per documentary film. Moreover, the major documentary co-producer for Czech documentaries is the public Czech TV, which means most documentaries are expected to air a few months after their theatrical release. That is partly positive as television provides tens of thousands of viewers, so documentary directors can be sure their work will not remain completely unseen. But the fact that most documentaries are scheduled for public TV broadcast from the very beginning makes a trip to the cinema even more avoidable for many.
Documentary filmmakers still want to see their work on the screen, but in the end – is it really necessary? Are festivals, television or lately VOD distribution really not enough for this movie form? Most Czech documentaries are not very ‘cinematic’ anyway, so why bother? But the lovers of dark cinema halls can find several arguments for why the feeling of a film screened for an audience is still irreplaceable. Their core idea: shared experience of the film event.
More and more documentary films have been taking the ‘event’ part to the next level and ‘event distribution’ has been increasingly popular among Czech documentaries. There is nothing new about filmmakers meeting audiences every now and then to discuss their movie, especially if the film has a political or social agenda. But lately the concept has been growing in proportions. Movies like The Lust for Power (Mečiar, 2017), The Limits of Work (Hranice práce, 2017) or Milda (2017) traveled the country with an additional program. Others like When the War Comes (Až přijde válka, 2018) and Nothing Like Before (Nic jako dřív, 2017) are getting ready to do the same.
Most often, an additional program consists of a discussion with the filmmakers, which makes sense when the film has an activist background like, for instance, The Limits of Work by Apolena Rychlíková, a young progressive filmmaker and author. Other films opt for more complex concepts. The filmmakers behind Milda, a portrait of the last communist leader, invite former communists and dissidents to talk about the life under the regime and their views on society and politics. Everything’s Gonna Be Fine (Všechno bude fajn, 2017) takes quite a different path and ties its screenings with music concerts at local clubs. Co-producer Čestmír Kopecký relies almost solely on this type of distribution, just as he did with his fiction feature It’s Gonna Get Worse (...a bude hůř, 2007).
“I don’t really think there’s another way to do documentary films today than to add some value to the screening itself,” says Jan Gebert, director of When the War Comes. “Because, let’s be honest, it isn’t very exciting to go to the movies and just watch a documentary. Who even does that? Definitely nobody outside Prague,” claims Gebert. He has experience with his last film Stone Games (Hra o kámen, 2012), in which he explored the controversial topic of Germans expelled from the Sudetenland after World War II. He visited the region and was surprised to find that this part of history was still very much alive. “The movie was the starting point for a discussion, which was really interesting to me,” says Gebert. “I can’t imagine just screening the movie, it feels weird to me, like a wasted opportunity, especially today.”
It sounds nice and well but what about the money? Is event distribution a legitimate strategy or is it just part of filmmakers’ personal activism? It seems to be the latter. Gebert was able to pay a small fee to his guests but he attended these discussions for free. That was also the case with Robin Kvapil and his Everything's Gonna Be Fine. “It’s simple. If you have no grant, you do it for free,” explains the director. “From a practical point of view, it isn’t very useful. It interferes with my current work and free time and there’s no money in it for me. But I like it, it’s like a mental workout. It’s great to have some feedback.” Pavel Křemen, director of Milda, is quite pessimistic after his experience. “You need a good host and a team of people to invite guests. There must be some production value to the added program and currently it is expected you do all that with no money.”
There is a new institution specializing in event distribution that tries to solve just that problem. KineDok enters its fourth year of existence with 15 documentaries that are to be screened not only in the Czech Republic but in several other countries of Central and Eastern Europe that are partners of the program. “I believe that event distribution can have a positive impact on distribution as a whole,” says Bohdan Bláhovec of KineDok who views event distribution as part of a movie’s unofficial campaign. The tricky part is that KineDok operates separately from cinema distributors so it is perceived as a competing initiative. “We’re part of the Institute of Documentary Film, a nonprofit organization and we’re not expected to make money, which makes us annoying to distributors,” explains Bláhovec. “But at least under our program, it’s not just guests who get paid for discussions but filmmakers as well.”
KineDok operates outsides cinemas – that is necessary due to the limited rights. It uses other public spaces such as schools. The theme of a movie is often reflected in the selected screening venue. “When we screened Normal Autistic Film (Normální autistický film, 2016), we cooperated with organizations focusing on autism,” says Ivona Remundová of KineDok. A single screening attracts on average twenty people but some of the projects, such as the screening of The White World According to Daliborek (Svět podle Daliborka, 2017), had hundreds of viewers. “On the whole, these are no mass events, it would be impossible to make it work on a commercial scale,” admits Bláhovec.
Reality is not as optimistic as one might wish. Event distribution probably is not an economically sustainable model, much like others in the current reality of documentary distribution. But on the bright side, it makes more people want to see the movies. It makes them curious and engaged in social issues. Throughout the 20th century, we see an attempt to standardize film presentation, which is believed to be the key to financial success by mainstream producers. And they are probably right from their perspective. But if we agree that documentary production deserves to be free of commercial pressure and should be funded by state institutions, it is clear that event distribution deserves support as well. Watching movies is often considered a passive activity and many are afraid the medium has lost its power to pass on any real messages. Event distribution makes sure that viewers pay attention and think about what they’ve just seen. It revives the idea of shared movie experience. However, we shouldn’t count on enthusiasm alone, existence of an organization that is able to plan, organize and fund (though itself funded) those activities is a relevant approach to keep documentaries alive.