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Racing Doc Senna Takes Banksy Indie Route: Opens Strong, Tries to Reel in Women

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 16, 2011 at 2:25AM

The real question after this weekend's best doc opening of the year ($36,749 per screen average) for the Formula 1 racing doc Senna is why Working Title didn't put the movie out through Universal's specialty subsidiary Focus Features, which releases many of their smaller-scale films, including the upcoming Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Focus may be regretting the move--Senna is already the third-highest performing doc in the U.K., behind Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins. Universal, which owns some territories, put up the domestic P & A.
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Thompson on Hollywood

The real question after this weekend's best doc opening of the year ($36,749 per screen average) for the Formula 1 racing doc Senna is why Working Title didn't put the movie out through Universal's specialty subsidiary Focus Features, which releases many of their smaller-scale films, including the upcoming Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Focus may be regretting the move--Senna is already the third-highest performing doc in the U.K., behind Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins. Universal, which owns some territories, put up the domestic P & A.

The film's Sundance sales rep, Cinetic Media's John Sloss, says he never got an explanation why Focus didn't step up. As Senna was playing well at Sundance (eventually winning the doc audience award), distribution offers did come in. But the numbers weren't high for a doc about a sport that has never taken off stateside--Formula 1 racing is much bigger around the world, including Brazil, which mounted a state funeral after dreamy racer Ayrton Senna was tragically killed at age 34 on the track in 1994. But producer James Gay Rees had enjoyed a taste of what it was like to control his own destiny when Cinetic Media's fledgling distributor PDA took the grass roots approach to Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop. The results were stellar: $3.3 million gross and an Academy Award nomination.

So even back at Sundance, Rees wanted "to put the band back together," recalls Sloss. So they agreed to reassemble the same dream team: New York distributor Richard Abramowitz (Abramorama), social media marketer Marc Schiller and NY/LA PR reps Donna Daniels and Nancy Willen, respectively. Sloss thinks that putting out only one or two movies a year as labors of love is key. "With this grassroots approach we do better justice to the film." He names his own staffer Dana O'Keefe as a key contributor to the group effort-- he's a lifelong Formula 1 freak; his father had covered the circuit as a journalist. "It's inevitable that distributors look ten films ahead in line," says Sloss. "We're all in on the one in front of us."

Senna built up a steady buzz on the film fest circuit, along with a lot of good will--it's the kind of movie people advocate for on Twitter and Facebook. The filmmakers had so much footage available to them that they were able to craft a three-act drama without new on-camera talking heads--off-camera and vintage interviews and behind-the-scenes footage from multiple viewpoints tell a crystal clear dramatic narrative. Once they get into theaters women love the movie, but its demo is largely male so far. Next weekend the movie will expand to 11 markets and 15 theaters. "We're banking on the playability of the film," says Sloss. "We're sitting back and hoping word-of-mouth takes hold." ESPN and NASCAR America are helping to promo the sports doc; after it has built momentum, PDA hopes to break into more markets not traditionally friendly to docs.

PDA's next film is the Emilio Estevez's spiritual road movie The Way, starring his father Martin Sheen, which plans a month-long road tour before its October 7 opening.

Senna, PDA, UK | Dir: Asif Kapadia | A- criticWIRE | iW interviews Kapadia: “I hope the audience will laugh, cry, fall in love with him and be moved by his remarkable story.” | “You’ve never seen anything like it.” | 92% Tomatometer, 81% Metacritic.

This article is related to: Box Office, Genres, Independents, Marketing, Summer, Documentaries


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.