Fresh from another Oscar win, Passion Pictures’ John Battsek and Andrew Ruhemann tell Jon Creamer about their extraordinary run of success in producing feature documentaries

It’s 14 years now since the film arm of animation house Passion Pictures launched its first feature doc, Kevin Macdonald’s One Day in September, that went on 
to win them an Academy Award. Since then, the company’s produced and exec produced a string of movies that have picked up Oscar, Bafta and Grierson nominations and wins from The Age of Stupid, to Restrepo, The Tillman Story and, along with Simon Chinn’s Red Box Films, Project Nim, Raw Films’ Bafta winner The Imposter and this year’s Bafta and Oscar success Searching for Sugar Man.

It’s an incredible hit rate, and all kick started by that first Oscar success. When One Day in September, won the Academy Award “doors flew open left right and centre,” says head of Passion’s film arm, John Battsek. “As a first timer it put us in a position where we could be making big budget feature docs immediately.” 
But even now “people don’t throw money at you…”

Because it’s still about finding the stories and directors that can make it on the big screen. And part of that is the “scale of the story,” says Andrew Ruhemann, head of the Passion Group. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a big multiple cast epic, it’s about the scale of the drama.” It’s also often about finding stories that “fit a feature genre quite well. It’s no surprise with Sugar    Man that there are people hovering around saying they want to make it into a drama. And The Imposter too. They’re films where fact really is stranger than fiction.”

They’re stories that are “greater than the sum of their parts” too, says Battsek. “The story transcends itself and resonates above and beyond the core story.” And that means a film can appeal to a wider audience beyond the one interested in the headline subject.

For the producer, it’s then a case of bringing in elements that can help turn that story into a big screen event. “What kind of archive, what kind of music could you use? Audiences traditionally find archive in feature docs completely captivating,” says Battsek. “We think about how many of those ingredients can we bring to elevate the story to the point it feels like cinema.”

And that’s often where a feature doc sized budget comes in. “Sometimes there’s a film you can elevate because you’ve brought cash to it,” says Battsek. “Money can buy you great music and more archive and you can do all sorts of fancy stuff. Often, though, what the money does is buy people who thought they were going to cut a film in 16 weeks the next 16 weeks they need to actually cut the film.”
Because with docs, it’s not always obvious what the story is from the outset, says Battsek. “You don’t really know until it slaps you in the face and that’s normally week 20 of the edit. These films reveal themselves through the edit, there’s always a question mark over whether it’s going to make it as proper cinema.”

The other element that can turn a story into a cinematic experience is, of course, the skill of the filmmaker. “Bart Layton [The    Imposter], James Marsh [Man on Wire], Kevin MacDonald. They’re very powerful, talented filmmakers and the extra ingredient that helps give it the legs to make it into a piece of cinema,” says Battsek. And those directors come from all angles. “Some have tons of time on TV, some have made movies and want to do docs, some come out of nowhere. It’s one of the exciting things about it.”

Another exciting thing is that there is a decent amount of money around to make theatrical docs now. “It’s pretty healthy,” says Battsek. “Finance and broadcasters have got a real appetite for it.” And there are plenty of people around looking to invest. “We get our films, for the most part, financed quite significantly out of America – HBO, A&E, ShowTime… There are a bunch of people in the business of financing feature docs. A&E and HBO will fully fund a feature doc to the tune of anywhere between $1m and $1.5m, maybe more. And there’s BBC Films, Film4, Channel 4, BBC and there’s Sky now, NBC Universal. There are ways of combining all these people. Then there are all sorts of different little equity companies. Feature docs in the last decade have become something people are very interested in putting their money into."

And they’ve found an established, and burgeoning route to distribution too. “Our traditional pattern is to make a film, platform it at a big festival – more often than not Sundance  – and sell it there,” says Battsek. And that route is getting easier, he says. “Five years ago, you’d probably only sell the US out of Sundance, maybe the UK and maybe Australia too. Now more 
and more international buyers are picking up films 
at Sundance and for proper proper money.”

After that, it’s in the hands of the gods. “We try to make the very best possible film and do the best possible deal and work with the distributor to do the best possible campaign. Then when it’s out there, at a certain point you’ve got to let it happen or not happen.”

Company CV
Starting with Oscar winner One Day In September in 1999, Passion Pictures has been responsible for over 25 theatrical docs including Greg Barker’s Sergio (Oscar shortlisted 2010); Oscar nominated Restrepo; and The Tillman Story (Oscar Shortlisted, 2011). Recently, Passion has been involved with 2013 Bafta Outstanding Debut winner, Bart Layton’s The Imposter, and Malik Bendjelloul’s directorial debut, the Oscar, Sundance and Bafta winning Searching For Sugar Man and the soon to be released Manhunt about the CIA’s long war with Al Qaeda.

Jon Creamer

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