Oprah Embraces Poetry Doc — and Complicates Things for ‘Louder Than a Bomb’

Makers of vibrant high-school poetry film find Oprah’s Doc Club a new destination in a changing landscape — but it comes at a price

AWARDS BEAT

The good news for the makers of "Louder Than a Bomb," a stirring documentary about high school poetry: Oprah wanted them to join her club.

The catch: Oprah's new club charges dues (read: a cut of DVD revenue) that can complicate things for a movie with theatrical aspirations.

Louder Than a BombProducer-directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel went with Winfrey, of course. And if her endorsement is even a fraction as valuable in independent documentary film as it has been in publishing, inclusion in the newly-launched Documentary Club on Oprah's TV network could give an enormous boost to "Louder Than a Bomb."

The film played at film festivals for more than a year before opening this month in New York City. That opening came via a deal with Balcony Releasing, which helps indie filmmakers craft tailored release strategies but does not have the resources for the kind of extensive, ad-supported release that bigger distributors might provide.

"The Oprah deal is wonderful in that you still have the rights for a theatrical release, and you can still do festivals and all of that," Jacobs told TheWrap of the OWN Documentary Club acquisition, which will give the film a fall television premiere on OWN.

"But one of the complications is that we will be splitting the DVD rights with them. That makes it less appealing for traditional distributors, because that revenue stream is now off the table. So we pretty much knew after we made the OWN deal that traditional distribution wasn't going to happen."

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The OWN Documentary Club launched this month, just before the widely-publicized end of Winfrey's own talk show. The club, patterned after her enormously influential book club, kicked off with "Becoming Chaz," the high-profile doc about Chaz Bono.

Because the club looks to acquire docs that tell uplifting stories, "Louder Than a Bomb," a vibrant look at several groups of largely inner-city Chicago teens participating in an annual poetry contest, was a seamless fit. 

"It's the exact right TV venue for the film, and it’s one that didn't exist when we started making it," said Jacobs. "I feel as if the model for our type of film collapsed as we were working, but this new place emerged at the end to say, 'Hey, we do this too.'"

The film underwent what Siskel calls "a long and winding road" to distribution: it premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival in March 2010 and played a large number of smaller-tier festivals for most of the next year, picking up numerous audience awards but only slowly getting the business interested.

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"The sense we got is that there may have been a very well-defined roadmap for this sort of film going into it," said Siskel, who with Jacobs has made numerous films for the National Geographic Channel and the Discovery Network. "But as we were filming and editing and getting the film out, that roadmap was changing. And that made it much tougher than we expected."

"It's a Wild West thing now," added Jacobs, "where you have to navigate in ways that are very specific to your film to find the path that works best."

Their path, he said, involved playing every festival and showcase they could – among them a crucial run at the IDA's DocuWeeks showcase last summer.

"The IDA took two or three films that were playing at DocuWeeks and sent them to ro*co [films international], which is kind of curating the Oprah Documentary Club," said Siskel. "They fell in love with it and recommended it for the club."

Among the other films acquired for Oprah's doc club are "Family Affair," "Most Valuable Players," "65_RedRoses" and "One Lucky Elephant," which screened at last year's Los Angeles Film Festival.

And now that the makers of "Louder Than a Bomb" have worked around the Oprah complications to land in theaters, they can look ahead to a TV slot in the fall, and then a DVD release where they'll be splitting the revenue with a woman who, they believe, knows how to sell things via TV.

"If there's anybody on the planet who can sell documentary DVDs," said Jacobs with a laugh, "it's Oprah Winfrey."