Catching Up With Susan Margolin of Docurama

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Docurama president Susan Margolin has been shaking things up in the documentary world for quite some time now. She co-founded her first distribution company, New Video Group, right at the beginning of the modern American indie film movement, in 1991. Now, more than twenty years later, she’s looking to shake up the industry again, this time beginning a documentary streaming service through Docurama. It’s a division of Cinedigm, a company well known for pushing the boundaries of distribution. Margolin talked with us recently about the rollout.

Paste Magazine : Why don’t you start out talking about sort of the basic concept of the project, and bringing documentaries to more consumers to be able to consume more easily?
Susan Margolin: I launched the Docurama brand, the Docurama label, fifteen years ago when it was part of my company New Video, which is now part of Cinedigm. We’d go to Sundance and see, year after year, that the documentary features were the most powerful and the most amazing stories we were seeing at Sundance, and yet they weren’t really reaching wide audiences. So we started Docurama to kind of bring those wonderful films to light. And, you know, we’ve had some amazing films over the years from Invisible War to Hell and Back Again, Wasteland, Gas Land, the list is long. Several Academy Award nominees and winners.

Paste : I was going to say, those films had a little bit of success with the public, with the critics, and with the awards for sure.
Margolin: Originally, Docurama started as a home entertainment label, and then we started to release theatrically. About eight years ago, we launched our digital distribution and became one of the leading suppliers of documentaries to all of the major digital platforms from Itunes to Xbox, to Netflix, Hulu, Playstation, Vudu and Google Play. And we continue to do that, but with the advent of OTT networks and the growth of our library to over 50,000 films and programs, we decided it was the right time to launch a channel. So we’re talking initially about a thousand titles that we’ll be launching, and the channel will be available for free on connected devices such as Roku, Xbox, Samsung, Western Digital, Opera, Tivo Roamio; pretty substantial list. Amazon Fire; we’re one of the launch partners with Amazon Fire. These films will now be accessible to viewers for free through these connected devices and with a very low barrier to entry. In other words, the app is free and each time you watch the film it is free and ad-supported.

Paste : And, also, you may have mentioned this, smart TVs. Like I have a connected Samsung that when I go to Smart Hub I have all of these channels I can choose from and this will be, or maybe already is, one of the ones that I can choose from, right?
Margolin: It is, it is absolutely. And we’ll be expanding onto additional platforms and iOS will be ready in a couple of weeks; it’s still in beta. But you’ll see a tremendous expansion over the coming year as there are more connected devices and as we expand out from our original launch partners.

Paste : This is more a kin to the Netflix model where everything that’s available is available all the time, right?
Margolin: That’s right, that’s right exactly. Everything is available free on demand, and we will be bringing out additional titles each month. We expect to add about 800 titles a year.

Paste : Wow, this is not all you can eat; this is way, way more than you could ever think about eating.
Margolin: Well the thing is, this is true, but we’re going to have categories that are helping people to make their decisions and kind of curated playlists and guest film makers who are going to bring their favorite films to light. So it won’t just be a vast feed; it’ll be kind of recommendations that we’re making and additional content around those curated categories.

Paste : Fantastic, fantastic. Any of those that you’re able to say out loud, or are we’re going to have to wait to see those new pieces?
Margolin: Well, right now we have a Memorial Day program going on, and one of our titles, Lioness, was trending over the weekend; Daria Sommers’ and Meg McLagan’s film about a female soldier in Iraq. We had Hell and Back Again from Danfung Dennis, which follows a marine who is in Afghanistan, and the filmmaker’s embedded, and then the marine, Sergeant Nathan Harris, is wounded. It follows him back home dealing with issues like PTSD and with a very severe, tough recovery ahead of him; that was Academy Award nominated. We have My Trip to Al-Qaida, directed by Alex Gibney. These are all part of our Memorial Day special. We’re going to be programming around Gay Pride month in June, and [there’s] Father’s Day that we’ll be focusing on as a category. And kind of the general interest categories like sports, lifestyle, food, with some of our most popular Docurama titles.

Paste : So tell me about the filmmaker-friendliness of the program.
Margolin: I guess some of the feedback in the beginning from filmmakers is that they really like that their film will be available to a broad audience and yet there is a revenue sharing model so they’ll be sharing 50/50 in the ad revenues. It’s free, widely available, and there is a model for revenue back to the filmmakers. So that’s something that a lot of filmmakers are interested in getting involved in and dipping their toe in, especially as their film might have cycled through some of the heavy transactional platforms. Perhaps they’ve already finished their cable VOD run and maybe had their first pay window and kind of making the film available to folks who aren’t subscribers to other services.

Paste : So this is kind of their long tail play.
Margolin: Yeah. I think it’s also the fact that it’s a new model. I think a lot of filmmakers are looking for new models and new revenue streams as the business is changing. So we’re finding a lot of folks intrigued by our model and certainly excited that there is finally a dedicated digital channel devoted to feature docs. We’re also going to have short form, and we’re also going to have some non-fiction episodic TV, but feature docs are going to be kind of the cornerstone of the channel.

Paste : You might think it’s too soon—you’ve just gotten past this launch and here I am asking you about the future and the next steps you’re going to take. But I get the feeling you’ve probably got a lot of new and exciting directions that you want to take Docurama into, as well. Tell me about any thoughts about that.
Margolin: Well, we’re continuing to have our theatrical releases, and we’re looking at some other brand expansions that I can’t go into quite yet, but continuing to acquire films from the festival circuit. We just released Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors, and we have The Dog coming up about the real character behind Dog Day Afternoon. Have you seen The Dog yet?

Paste : No, you know I wanted to see that. Was it at Sarasota? It was at a festival I was at.
Margolin: It was, it was.

Paste : Yeah, I’ve heard great things about it.
Margolin: It’s pretty amazing. You’ll enjoy the film. The Dog is an incredible character. The filmmakers worked on the film for 11 years, and it’s absolutely genius. So we’ll be releasing that in August in association with Drafthouse Films, in partnership with them.

Paste : Oh that’s great. That whole organization is fantastic.
Margolin: So we’re continuing to release films; we had Narco Cultura, Shaul Schwarz’s film, earlier this year. We will be doing about three or four theatrical releases a year and at least a release a month through our digital and DVD channels.

Paste : Fantastic; that sounds great!

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