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Trends Emerge for Bolstering Documentary at Retail

9 Nov, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

Competition is tough enough among theatrical releases with big production and marketing budgets. For documentaries, getting heard above the blockbuster fanfare at retail is an uphill struggle.

“It's still in its infancy. I don't think the potential for the documentary film has really taken off. The retailers stay with the hit films,” said Janet Baker, director of sales for Wellspring Media.

But suppliers have some ideas on how to merchandise documentaries to maximize the niche and let consumers know the retailer can fill their needs. For retailers, documentaries can offer opportunities they may be missing to fill in the blanks for their customers and serve a segment of the market that may be migrating online because other retailers offer them little choice.

“People are trained that if they can't get something at retail, they will go to the Web. Maybe a disproportionate amount of documentary business is going to the Web because of that. But you need niche product; it keeps people coming back,” Baker said.

Perhaps it's a stigma of dusty, dry, black-and-white newsreels that documentaries need to shake. Whatever it is, documentaries are still a low priority in most brick-and-mortar retail and rental environments.

“In the retail world, it's very hard to get dedicated space without spending a ton of money on either a retail display or shelftalkers,” said Mike Carden, EVP of Eagle Rock Entertainment. “There's always window posters and that sort of thing, but there is limited space for that. Most of the rental establishments especially, if they bring in documentaries, don't have very much space for it.”

With that in mind, several suppliers offered some strategies that work.

Teaming With Related Products
“Doing a tie-in with other mainstream films can raise the profile of the documentary and sex it up a little,” said Ellen Capon, director of marketing for Docurama. “The retailer might see that as an opportunity to move other product as well.”

Blockbuster stores put Docurama's The Brandon Teena Story next to the biodrama theatrical account Boys Don't Cry and boosted the documentary's success, Capon said. For the Ted Demme film A Decade Under the Influence, which looked at 1970s films, Virgin Megastores put the title on display with films referenced in the documentary, a strategy that can work for any documentary that surveys films or film careers.

“The obvious thing with Fellini: I'm a Born Liar is crosspromoting it with the Fellini features. Those that do, such as Virgin and the specialty retailers, it works well,” said Bill Bromiley, SVP of First Look Entertainment. “There is a fine line. When we come out with Fellini, it's a new-release title.”

That approach helps get the best yield from the backstory.

Timing Is Everything
Documentary suppliers have eagle eyes for feature films in production. Once a title is under way, they can piggyback onto the larger studio's feature marketing effort.

“When we're trying to market our documentaries, like the History Channel documentary on the Alamo, they are tying it in to Billy Bob Thornton's story about the Alamo,” Capon said.

Tie-ins can work whether they are with subjects, celebrities, events or even TV shows.

“We had some success with that with a Tolkien project we did,” Carden said. While New Line Home Entertainment was marketing The Fellowship of the Ring, folks at Eagle Rock were busy piggybacking Tolkien: Master of the Rings.

“We tried to get follow-on space and advertising. Musicland and Best Buy placed the title in their weekly ad flyers. It wasn't easy,” he said. “When you are putting something out at a super price point, there is not much left for advertising.”

The title started at $19.98 and was later reduced to $9.98. “At that price, the sales tripled,” Carden said.

“We have a program coming out in January called The Godfathers Collection. It's the true history of the Mafia,” said Patricia Keim, director of marketing for A&E at New Video. “It's basically the history of the Mafia moving from small towns in Italy. It can tie into ‘The Sopranos.' We're going to release it for people like me who get antsy waiting for the new season of ‘Sopranos.’

For Wellspring, “the most successful we have done is The James Bond Story,” Baker said. The title was released in 2000. “It's a documentary about all the different actors that have played James Bond. We sent [e-mails] out every time there was a Bond film either in theatrical or on home video. It got a huge boost every single time.”

Every Picture Tells a Story
“The retailers need a story before they will bring a documentary in,” said George Steele III, director of audio sales at Image Entertainment.

He counsels suppliers to arrange radio, press and consumer strategies and articulate them well to retailers up front. In the case of Image's pending Elvis Presley documentary 200 Cadillacs, the ace in the hole was a built-in fan base of “Elvis completists.” The release includes a CD for $15.98 and a DVD for $19.99.

“I wanted to price it aggressively because we are looking at something really cool,” Steele said.

“The retail campaign focuses in on the Elvis fan clubs. There are five national Elvis fan clubs that really represent the lion's share of the fans that are out there. That will be tied in with the retail,” he said. “Because it is a film about Elvis Presley, it will not be positioned as a traditional documentary. We are working with some retail partners, and we are working on pricing and positioning programs with those retailers. We are attempting to get this merchandise in the music area.”

That, Steele said, proves “you can go to the retailers and tell them you have a story that will get it out of being positioned with some starchy documentary out there.”

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