Theatrical Releases Not Easy for Iraq Docs, Says Donahue

In May, Phil Donahue’s and Ellen Spiro’s documentary Body of War was playing in a severely limited release across the country. The Iraq War doc which features an injured vet who seeks answers (trailer above), eventually grossed a paltry $71,716 in theaters. Donahue discussed some of his frustrations with the film’s release and editing process at a Q&A session at the time, and Viva Doc was on hand to transcribe his thoughts.

An exclusive partial transcript is as follows.

Donahue on his frustrations with the theatrical release opportunities for Iraq War films:

DONAHUE: The distribution of the movie. The movie does not have a distributor. Iraq docs are playing to empty seats. The winner of the Oscar [for Best Documentary] this year, Taxi to the Dark Side, fell off the marquee. As you can see, this is not a ‘take your girl to the movie’ movie. And we don’t have the big corporate budget that normally rolls out a movie.

We don’t have the money for full page ads. You know Hollywood spends more on promotion than they do on the movie. But I shot my wad on this movie. And you know, the cost of doing a Hollywood type of roll-out is prohibitive. So Landmark [Theaters] agreed to take our films in major cities across the country, giving us a chance to tap dance and see who would throw pennies. But the movie does not hold up. We get crowds like this for the first and second night, when I’m doing Q&As, but it…

HBO? Well it’ll probably be Sundance Channel, and we’ll be selling a DVD… So this film will somehow find its way, but Jaws we’re not gonna be. This is not a theatrical success. We just aren’t selling popcorn.

Donahue on keeping the importance of editing and keeping the documentary lean, mean and focused:

DONAHUE: It’s only one movie. And it is true, 1.2 million civilians are dead. I don’t know how many ornaments you can hang on the Christmas tree, that’s our problem. If you do too much, it gets to be wallpaper, and they’ll run screaming from the theater. It’s hard enough to get somebody to come see this film. That’s why we tried to keep it as tight as possible. And that’s why a lot of things didn’t survive the film. We took Thomas [the main character] to Harvard, he talked to an egg head there who talked about stem cell research. And it just slowed the film down, so it didn’t make the final cut.