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Several months ago, at the DOC NYC documentary film festival in New York, I saw a remarkable, hidden gem of a film titled Discoveries of a Marionette. The movie traces the life of the director's grandfather through stints as a member of the Norwegian resistance in the Second World War to his around-the-world journeys as a sea captain. The story is captivating; the film is a stunning, poetic masterpiece.
But as with many small, great films, this one has garnered very little attention. It never made it to U.S. theaters; it remains unrated and uncommented upon on Amazon.com's (Nasdaq: AMZN ) Internet Movie Database; and it has garnered just a handful of critical reviews, all favorable.
Given that our flagship newsletter service has recommended Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) and Amazon.com for years, I decided to contact the director to understand how he viewed the business of filmmaking with new distribution opportunities online.
Tom Gardner: What was the financial cost to make Discoveries of a Marionette?
Bjarte Morner Tveit: I think the most expensive documentary film that we've ever made was something like $1.3 million.
Discoveries of a Marionette didn't get anywhere near that high. We could never have raised that much money because of who I was and the film I was making. When I began this project a decade ago, I was a first-time filmmaker trying to make a philosophical film, a grand film about something that seemed on paper very small: the meaning of life told through the filmmaker's meeting with his grandfather. It didn't seem so sellable on paper.
The film has now been screened often on primetime in Norway. It was screened on Christmas Eve across the country, and then on Christmas Day.
Gardner: And has it succeeded commercially?
Tveit: That remains to be seen. But generally, documentary filmmakers work for much less than if we'd taken another trade. We've accepted that. We live in Stavanger, which is the richest city in the richest country in the world. Norway has a very big fund for the financing of documentaries. And fortunately, we've had some success. We had a film called Ballet Russian Waltz that was Emmy-nominated in America and was aired on PBS. So we get money from different sources. We get money from Norwegian funds; we get money from Norwegian investors; and we get money from Norwegian angel investors that are more like philanthropists. They see that we've dedicated our life to this. It sounds a little bit pompous, but we try to change the world a little bit through each film.
Gardner: So then how do you define a successful documentary?
Tveit: It's different for each film.
I would define Discoveries of a Marionette as a success, now, because it has screened across Norway, and I've been receiving a lot of email and letters from people saying: "Listen, I saw your film. It affected me deeply."
When we do political films, it's different. We made a film called Yodok Stories, which premiered at Tribeca in 2008. It was in cinemas in Norway. Once we released it, we had two very clear signs of success. First is, of course, that it was a box-office success.
But the second was impact.
A group of 15-year-old girls saw the film in their school. I don't think a documentary about concentration camps in North Korea is something most 15-year-olds would buy a ticket for. But the film aired at their school. Afterwards, they held a demonstration in the streets of Norway where they rallied a lot of youths. The film started something. A lot of young people in Norway realized, "We do not want to accept this injustice in North Korea. We can and we need to change the world." They were writing letters to the prime minister. And when the prime minister in Norway and the foreign minister know the people's energy is on to something, they act.
Gardner: What do you think of the opportunity to distribute your work on the Internet, via Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) YouTube and Netflix? Do you imagine five years from now you'll be distributing your work instantly and directly to an Internet audience?
Tveit: I think that is a very interesting question. Let's take our film called On a Tightrope that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007. It attracted a lot of press and was sold to more than a dozen countries. It was shown at about 50 festivals all around the world. We were excited. And yet, still, it was not financially viable.
So, after that, we decided that we needed to reinvent the whole process by which our films are distributed. Millions of people had seen it, but it'd made no money. It was on Primetime Channel 4 in England, CBC in Canada, Australia, all over, lots of big festivals, a lot of press. Still when we delivered it to the market, all we could do were some interviews to try to move it forward.
So we've set up a distribution company with an office in San Francisco and one here in Stavanger. We're in the process of opening a channel online on which we'll air documentaries, especially from the Scandinavian countries, for free. That way, we can reach viewers and they can reach us directly. Even though it will be free for the user, we still think it could be a better business idea than relying on the old world of distribution.
Gardner: How? Will it be advertising sponsored?
Tveit: It depends. There's probably going to be some ads, yes. But remember that if we can make a film seen around the world, then we can get funding from all around the world. It is much more important that we reach a large audience than that we get a few dollars from each viewer.
Gardner: So is the business of making documentary films a frustration for you? Would you prefer to spend all of your time on filmmaking?
Tveit: When it comes to distribution, I love these challenges. Right now, we're trying to redefine the whole distribution of documentary films, using online. That is really challenging and I really, really, really thoroughly enjoy it.
Gardner: Bjarte, you've made a remarkable film. Thank you for sharing a bit about the commercial side of your work.
Tveit: Thank you, Tom, and thank you to The Motley Fool.
If you would like to view a clip of this film, click here (the narrator does not begin speaking until the 1:40 mark).
And if you would like to read what we think about the business of movies online -- as well as why we're still holding Netflix, even after it has risen more than 10 times in value for us, take a free 30-day free trial to Motley Fool Stock Advisor by clicking here.