Specialty distributor Drafthouse Films opened shop in 2010 and scored a surprise Oscar nomination with its third release, the Belgian Best Foreign Pic contender Bullhead. Now Drafthouse is back in the awards game with Joshua Oppenheimer’s startling Indonesian genocide documentary The Act Of Killing, a provocative pic backed by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris that has already racked up dozens of awards and made the Oscar documentary shortlist in a notably competitive year for nonfiction. Oppenheimer’s film profiles the celebrated death squad leaders responsible for mass murders in 1960s Indonesia as they flamboyantly re-stage their crimes for the camera in Hollywood-style re-enactments — and, in one killer’s case, start to grasp the severity of their actions. The film’s brutal themes required such a careful touch that Drafthouse’s considered awards approach began the moment they won a hard-fought bidding war for the film. But how do you market a film with protagonists like these and win over traditional-minded Academy voters with such a non-traditional message?
Oppenheimer’s film leaves the moralizing to the audience, but it has not for nothing earned a rep as one of the more unsettling Oscar hopefuls in recent memory. Former gangsters-turned-executioners like Anwar Congo helped the Indonesian military kill 1 million alleged Communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in 1965, and to this day the mass killers are still applauded for their actions. Given the chance to re-create their acts, the aging paramilitary heroes dramatize the killings as movies within the movie in the style of gangster drama, musical, and their other favorite cinematic genres. As the men act out their memories and sit in for their victims, conflicted feelings about their crimes against humanity emerge.
The Act Of Killing first landed on Drafthouse’s radar before its Telluride premiere, then Creative Director Evan Husney and CEO Tim League caught it at the Toronto Film Festival. “We fell in love with it instantly,” said COO James Shapiro. “I kept turning around to look at people behind me who weren’t there, like, ‘Are you watching this?’” Shapiro spent weeks courting the film’s sales agent in Tel Aviv and Oppenheimer in Copenhagen with round-the-clock phone calls. Adds League: “I landed in Toronto and immediately the first movie I saw was The Act of Killing. What I saw affected me so deeply I couldn’t think of anything else or any other movie for the duration of the festival.” The filmmakers were set to go with a rival buyer until League issued an impassioned eleventh-hour plea. “I think the title of the letter was ‘We HAVE to distribute Act of Killing,’” Shapiro recalled. “Tim’s soul poured out in this email begging to get this movie. I kept calling the sales agent that whole day, and she came back and said, ‘We’ll think about it.’ She called back at 1 AM and said we got it – the Hail Mary worked.”
Drafthouse Films’ commitment to a multi-market theatrical run in its Alamo Drafthouse theaters and an Oscar campaign helped seal the deal (it has played 150 theaters nationwide so far, including Landmark and additional arthouse theaters). The upstart distributor was also willing to tackle the challenge of marketing the film’s dark and difficult themes, which more conventional companies might have written off as too risky. “It’s been a passionate release from the beginning – it’s not the easiest movie in the world to sell,” said Shapiro. “You’re dealing with subject matter that’s really dark, about the darkest parts of humanity, and you’re telling a story in a way that’s never been told this way in a documentary. It’s a game-changer in terms of storytelling, and that’s one of the reasons we were impressed with it from the beginning.”
Charting a deliberate course ahead of Act of Killing’s theatrical push, Drafthouse opted for a traditional rollout in lieu of a day-and-date VOD release. “We were very careful with the festival circuit, making sure that it got the right exposure it needed and positioning the film so people could come with an open mind concerning what it was going to be about,” explained Sumyi Khong Antonson, Drafthouse’s VP of Marketing & Distribution. As a result The Act of Killing opened to a year-best $28K per-screen average at New York’s Sunshine Cinema before scoring the biggest opening of the year at L.A.’s Nuart Theatre. It has taken in over $450K domestically to date and is booked theatrically through January, which is also when the film will be released on DVD and Blu-ray (1/14). The Danish-British-Norwegian co-production, produced by Signe Byrge Sørensen, also opened this year in the UK, France, and Spain.
Oppenheimer, the producers, and the Drafthouse team have also invested in the film’s noncommercial potential to be an agent of change in Indonesia. Local crew members including two co-directors had to be credited as “Anonymous” to protect their identities for fear of retribution because the controversial 1965-1966 killings are still regarded by many as a patriotic purge. The filmmakers feared submitting it for official exhibition would incur a government ban that would subsequently sanction violent takedowns of screenings around the country, so Drafthouse teamed with Gen Y media titan Vice to release The Act of Killing as a free download via VHX in Indonesia. So far the film’s notched 10K downloads in Indonesia and sparked local media discussion of the genocide for the first time in decades. “There’s never been a doc like this,” said Shapiro. “We were taken by the possibility that it could affect change.” As for the “Anonymous” crew members whose identities remain unknown, Shapiro says, “We think that this movie is causing enough change that if we talk about this movie in five years, we’ll be able to redo the credit sequence and list all their names.”
But will The Act of Killing successfully penetrate the Academy? More than 1,400 physical screeners have been sent out to critics groups as well as online streaming links and screening invites for Academy members. The field of 150 docu contenders was whittled down to 15 on Monday, with heavy competition from Magnolia (Blackfish), Netflix (The Square), Roadside Attractions (Stories We Tell), SPC (The Armstrong Lie, Tim’s Vermeer), RADiUS-TWC (20 Feet From Stardom, Cutie and the Boxer) and others. That means a deep field of contenders, many from larger and more-seasoned veteran distributors and awards strategists, will be vying for Academy members’ attention. “The No. 1 rule is to try to get them to watch the movie,” said Shapiro. “We’re relying a great deal on the groundswell that’s happened on its own. We positioned this as best we can, and we’re being helped by the recognition that it’s getting through critical acclaim and various awards groups. But you have to cross your fingers to a certain extent.”