Despite the challenging theatrical market for independent films, Australian feature documentaries are generally performing well at home and some are getting decent exposure in the US and the UK.

Madman Entertainment MD Paul Wiegard estimates the feature docs released in cinemas in the 12 months to the end of April have grossed $10 million, excluding revenues from some on-demand screenings.

While narrative films often are struggling to cut through Wiegard says many theatrical docs are being well supported by audiences.

The main challenge, he acknowledges, is managing the risk of the P&A spend when ancillary revenues overall continue to fall, despite the rise in digital transactions.

Transmission Films co-founder Andrew Mackie agrees: “The problems that face documentaries are a symptom of all films – not unique to docs. The decline in the ancillary pie is where the challenge lies.”

Mick McIntyre and Kate McIntyre Clere’s Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story, Eddie Martin’s Have You Seen the Listers? and Naina Sen’s The Song Keepers were released in the past month and made minimal sums. Ditto for earlier releases Mat de Koning’s Meal Tickets and Warwick Thornton’s We Don’t Need a Map.

The top title in the first quarter was MAMIL (Middle Aged Men in Lycra!), Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe’s cycling documentary which made $115,000, distributed by Demand.Film.

However distributors and exhibitors do not see this as the start of a downward trend and are bullish about the prospects of Paul Williams’ Gurrumul (which Madman launched today) and upcoming titles including Ray Argall’s Midnight Oil 1984 and Jeremy Sims’ Wayne.

“Some work, some don’t – it’s often hard to know why,” says Jen Peedom, who directed Mountain and Sherpa.

”There’s a lot of competition in the cinemas and I think docos rely on word of mouth more than other films as there is very little to spend on marketing and PR. Festival exposure is crucial, as we’ve seen with Gurrumul, and this also contributes to box office. This is also where the word of mouth begins – and in the end, it’s all about finding the right audience for the film. That can be difficult with limited funds.”

According to Peedom, Mountain’s $2 million gross massively exceeded her expectations, boosted by the Australian Chamber Orchestra live tour and exposure at the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals.

The film has been playing in UK cinemas for nine weeks, making a tidy £230,000 ($424,000), which doesn’t include on-demand screenings, and it will open in the US on May 25 via Greenwich Entertainment.

“You’ve got to find economical ways to reach your audience,” says Peedom, who is working on a feature doc which she declines to discuss, and developing one feature about Tenzing Norgay scripted by Luke Davies and another based on the book How (Not) to Start An Orphanage by Tara Winkler and Lynda Delacey for Aquarius Films.

“With our feature David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, whenever David was able to attend with a Q&A, the screenings sold out. Without that, it struggled. I guess that shows that you need that point of difference, to get people out to the cinema. “

Cinema Nova general manager Kristian Connelly says: “There will always be audience interest in non-fiction accounts of local stories but new ground will undoubtedly be more welcome for audiences and outlets than a release which feels similar to another film which may have recently passed through the marketplace.

“The success of any local release will hinge on a strong campaign, a hook that intrigues audiences quickly and a clear idea of who the film’s audience is. As more and more low budget feature documentaries consider self-distribution, providing filmmakers with the skills to tackle this challenge should be a priority for screen agencies.”

Wallis Cinemas consultant Bob Parr notes that many docs including Taryn Brumfitt’s Embrace, Karina Holden’s Blue and Richard Todd’s Frackman have done very well with bookings arranged by Demand.Film and FanForce.

These platforms often market titles to demographics which most exhibitors lack the personnel to reach, Parr says.

Madman’s All for One, which followed the first five years of the GreenEdge cycling journey, directed by Marcus Cobbledick and Dan Jones, earned a good portion of its $350,000 gross from on-demand screenings last year,

Demand.Film has booked more than 400 sessions for the film in the US, Canada and the UK, starting on May 2.

Pre-release, Gurrumul, a poignant portrait of the late Indigenous songwriter/musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, grossed $150,000 from festivals and sold-out previews at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace and The Astor Theatre in Melbourne.

The film opened on 25 screens and will roll out in regional areas over the next few months. In an encouraging sign, Yunupingu’s fourth album Djarimirri debuted at No. 1 on the ARIA chart last week, the first time ever for an artist who sang in an Indigenous language.

Madman will launch the Midnight Oil doc, which features previously unseen footage of the band in the era when they became Australia’s most iconic rock group while balancing Peter Garrett’s foray into politics, on May 10. An alternate content release, it will play two sessions a day for the first two weeks on 85-100 screens.

In November, Transmission will release Wayne, the life story of former world motorcycle champion Wayne Gardner, billed as a “tale of speed, danger, love, adversity, dogged willpower and, eventually, triumph,” set in the late 1980s.

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