Philippa Kowarsky, managing director of Tel Aviv-based Cinephil is handling world sales on Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar nominated The Act of Killing and Wim Wenders’ initiated 3D doc series Cathedrals of Culture. She tells us about the art of selling documentaries.

At what stage do you usually come in?
Philippa Kowarsky
: We usually come in at a very early stage. With Cathedrals of Culture we came in almost two years ago, before the film series was ready, however with The Act of Killing we were approached by producer Signe Byrge Sørensen (Final Cut for Real) just before the film was locked.

What festival strategy did you use for The Act of Killing and how did this influence the sales?
First of all, for anyone going to a major festival, it’s crucial to go with a sales agent. To look for a sales agent at A festivals is a waste. The aim is already to start selling, and if you look for a sales agent, you will miss on the momentum. With The Act of Killing, we attended Telluride, Toronto, then waited six months for Berlin. The film also went to CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. It’s very important to respect your home base.

In Toronto, normally for a documentary you’re lucky if you get 20-30 people in the press & industry screenings but for The Act of Killing, 340 people came thanks to our publicity work. After that the buzz was wild. When the film was selected in Berlin, again we hired a great publicist. We closed all the territories we hadn’t signed in Toronto and people who said no earlier came back and changed their mind. We closed the US, Latin America, Canada, then France, Italy among others around Toronto. After Berlin we closed over 30 territories, mostly for theatrical, even Malta!

As a rule of thumb is it better to choose A festivals with a doc sidebar or specialised documentary festivals?
PK: If you think your film has theatrical potential, it’s definitely better to try A festivals such as Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto etc because theatrical distributors are there. The vast majority don’t come to the best Doc festivals. But then you always have exceptions to the rule.

Photo: Philippa Kowarsky - MD Cinephil

What kind of release strategy did Drafthouse Films use in the US and what are the BO results for the film as we’re approaching Oscar night?
Drafthouse did an incredible job. From the moment they saw the film they put up a fight. We didn’t really know who they were at the beginning and were discussing with more established companies. But Drafthouse matched financially our asking price and convinced us with their release strategy. Instead of a day and date release, they chose a more traditional theatrical roll out in many cinemas and nurtured the release. They didn’t waste millions of dollars in ads but worked harder on publicity to try to reach the relevant audiences. Joshua and producer Signe Byrge Sørensen were very supportive, and we were lucky also to have the executive producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris on board. The film has grossed nearly $500,000 in the US after seven months on screens.
Dogwoof in the UK also came up with a great campaign…
Dogwoof came in after Berlin and fell completely in love with the film. They did an incredible campaign, went on a UK tour with the director, and released the film late June in UK cinemas after it had won an award in Sheffield. The response from the British press has been amazing. The film has grossed more than £150,000 in the UK and it is still playing in some cinemas after more than 30 weeks!

The Act of Killing is set to open soon in Japan. It’s the only territory that really changed the artwork (they took away the fish!). Then we still have Hong Kong coming up.

Are you going to work on Joshua Oppenheimer’s second film in the diptych about Indonesia’s genocide, The Look of Silence and how much do you expect to raise on pre-sales?
Yes. This time I’m involved earlier on so that will help. We could close every territory in the world, but we still need to orchestrate the release strategies and timing with every distributor.

You’re working on the 6x30’ documentary series Cathedrals of Culture that had its world premiere in Berlin. What’s the release plan for the series?
That’s a wonderful challenge because the series doesn’t fit into any brick in the wall. I think the release will be different in many territories. As we have many great directors attached [from Wim Wenders, Robert Redford to Michael Madsen, Margreth Olin] and want to use them to create attention and awareness. We have theatrical interest in several countries with people thinking of an event cinema release such as The Metropolitan cinema in New York where you could have architects, artists on stage discussing the film and the event would be beamed out to hundreds of cinemas throughout the country at the same time.

Final Cut for Real in Denmark produced The Act of Killing and co-produced Cathedrals of Culture (both supported by Nordisk Film & TV Fond). Do you now have a formal relationship with them and do you work with other Scandinavian producers?
I think Scandinavia has great producers and a wonderful infrastructure. You can look at the quality of films coming out from the region. I love working with Final Cut for Real but our collaboration remains on a film by film basis. Every film has its own life and you have to feel passionate and assist each film as it comes out.

Day and date releases seem to be popular especially for documentary films. What do you think of the shift of distribution from traditional to digital platforms?
We’re still in transition times, but some VOD platforms really work well today such as Netflix and filmmakers can expect some money back. iTunes is also good for docs. I think it’s still hard for any film to do well on VOD if there isn’t any awareness around the film. You can create it via press, festival prizes, social media, advertising, whatever means you want, but awareness remains essential.

Is selling documentaries to international broadcasters harder today?
Generally speaking, there is still good space for bigger films or ‘event’ films that will raise a lot of attention and ratings like The Act of Killing. But the medium films made for €200,000 are having a tougher time because TV stations are more and more interested in local TV drama. Everyone wants content about their own backyard. Furthermore, TV stations want more and more spilling over onto their digital platforms.