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

by Anne Thompson
August 16, 2011 2:25 AM
1 Comment
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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.

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1 Comment

  • mary | August 16, 2011 6:16 AMReply

    I think "Senna" should also have very good chance to get an Academy Award nomination, especially there aren't too much popular documentaries in 2011.

    Don't know what happen between Universal and Focus... But I suspect the "Senna" release strategy may indicates that Universal would release more films in US through third-party distributors (I wouldn't be surprised if Universal release the Clive Owen-starrer "Intruders" through Open Road) Focus Features did similar things before; they released several niche films through Strand Releasing and sold the US rights of "Another Year" to Sony Pictures Classics.

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