Field notes: ROI

stowe-art-center.jpg A contingent from Massachusetts (including our new film office Executive Director Nick Paleologos and LEF Foundation director Lyda Kuth) made their way up to Stowe, Vermont to the Helen Day Art Center this past weekend to hear presentations on film financing organized by the Institute for International Film Financing. The presentations revolved around the economics and business mechanics of securing investors for film projects.

It was an interesting day- with a mix of real life examples from filmmakers who are setting up hyprid non-profit/for profit ventures, lawyers who explained the nuts and bolts of the business contracts needed to request and secure an investment, and the historical perspective of Sandra Shulberg, founder of the Independent Feature Project. Thomas Trenker, founder and Chairman at the Institute for International Film Financing ended up the day (with a very abbreviated presentation due to the fact that we were running well past the end of the scheduled day) with my personal favorite item of the day: a graph that he had prepared which detailed the return on investment (ROI) by budget and genres based on a database of some 2,500 films that had a theatrical release. The numbers were pretty astounding. According to Mr. Trenker, the documentary genre leads ALL genres of film with the highest ROI. Documentaries showed a 377% return as compared with a 52.5% for comedies and 17% for drama. With these kinds of numbers, why aren’t we all making money?

The thing you need to remember here is that his numbers are based on box office figures…so I thought I ‘d take a look and see what I could find out about just what those numbers represent. I don’t yet have Mr. Trenkers breakout of his data, but I did a little looking around on my own.

First question I had was about the number of documentaries that hit the big screen each year. Just how many are there after all? According to THE NUMBERS, if you look at the listings for the top-grossing genres from 1995-2007 , there are a total of 5,263 films listed. I was really kind of surprised by the number of them that were documentaries- 497. But, you will notice, that despite being 9% of the total number of films, documentaries grabbed only less than 1% of the market share in total gross.

Nonetheless, The Numbers reports that those 497 films had an average gross of $2,148,969. That sounds pretty good…..so I clicked on the documentaries genre to see the Box office history for the genre. Its a pretty interesting list- and you quickly note that much of the large box office totals come from either a couple of major films, or from IMAX movies. If you look at the bar graph along the top, you’ll notice that the market share trend spiked in 2004 (Fahrenheit 9/11) and has slid downward from there once again. The year by year market share at the bottom of the page enables you to see precisely what films by what year make up that 497 total.

For those of you who have been asking about business plans, or who are planning on approaching investors, you will want to review these numbers carefully. If you take a look at the box office history for “Based on Real Life Events Movies” you can also see a comparison of some of the films budgets as well as their gross.

For another look at numbers, you can go to Box Office Mojo and look at their totals for the documentary genre. They list the films by lifetime gross, as well as list the opening gross and the number of theaters. Of course, all of these figures assume that you even GET a theatrical run. Most documentaries do not.

Its important that independent filmmakers as well as the wider field get a handle on what the real numbers are for sales and support for documentaries. Much is being made about investment opportunities and finding new business models to support the genre. And many funders who have traditionally supported documentaries and independent filmmakers are backing away while the distribution of films is in flux. New forms of revenue and financing are definitely needed….as well as the investors to go with them.

So, in the end, what was my weekend ROI? Looks like I’ve found more questions running around my head than answers…but, there are some intriguing numbers to be looked at. Keep watching here as we explore those numbers in more depth.

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3 responses to “Field notes: ROI

  1. “Of course, all of these figures assume that you even GET a theatrical run. Most documentaries do not.” I am completing a documentary that will air on PBS in 2011. But will not have a theatrical run. It’s an hour-long one-off. Do you have any numbers related to that arena? How much might one expect to sell in 5 years? 10 years? Desperately seeking info.

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