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Tribeca: Gibney Brings Three Pics to Fest, Sells My Trip to Al-Qaeda to HBO

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood April 15, 2010 at 12:22PM

At a time when filmmakers the world over are struggling for funds and distribution outlets, a documentary filmmaker is doing well to sell his movie before it debuts at a fest like Tribeca. Now more than ever, as the breakout documentary hit is largely confined to the likes of pop culture entertainers Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, often the best sale to make is to HBO Documentary Films, which pays serious upfront dollars, throws you a premiere, and even markets your movie. That's more than most distributors are coughing up in this DIY era.
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Thompson on Hollywood

At a time when filmmakers the world over are struggling for funds and distribution outlets, a documentary filmmaker is doing well to sell his movie before it debuts at a fest like Tribeca. Now more than ever, as the breakout documentary hit is largely confined to the likes of pop culture entertainers Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, often the best sale to make is to HBO Documentary Films, which pays serious upfront dollars, throws you a premiere, and even markets your movie. That's more than most distributors are coughing up in this DIY era.

HBO has acquired U.S. TV rights to Alex Gibney's My Trip to Al-Qaeda, which debuts at Tribeca next week, along with his work-in-progress doc about scandal-plagued ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer and one of six segments of Freakonomics, which closes the fest (Magnolia is releasing).

Thompson on Hollywood

Based in New York, Gibney sits comfortably at the top of the documentary food chain. His worst fear: overextending himself with too many projects and throwing his back out with fatigue. The NYT writes about him often, as it does here in the context of Tribeca, which also debuted the 2007 HBO film Taxi to the Dark Side, which went on to win the Oscar. Gibney later assailed ThinkFilm for its lack of marketing support at a time when their funding was drying up and they were barely paying their bills. It's not clear how much better the tough look at Guantanamo and other prisons holding terrorist suspects might have fared with moviegoers.

Magnolia did better with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Gibney's latest Magnolia release, the Washington lobbyist expose Casino Jack & the United States of Money, debuted at Sundance and comes out this May. Still to come is Sony's Lance Armstrong doc covering last year's Tour de France.

Part documentary and part performance piece, My Trip to Al Qaeda is based on journalist Lawrence Wright’s one-man show (he wrote the script for the 1998 terrorist thriller The Siege). He had written the 2006 bestseller The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which chronicles how a journalist remains objective in the face of fundamentalist Islam’s rise to power. The film will debut on HBO in fall 2010.

This article is related to: Genres, Independents, Festivals, TV, Documentaries, Magnolia, HBO


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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.