With documentary distribution in a state of disruption, most independent nonfiction filmmakers have been left on their own to find new and creative solutions to ensure that their films reach audiences.
Ian Cheney is the latest director to turn to a bespoke distribution method for his docu “The Arc of Oblivion.” Cheney wrote, edited, and directed the film, which explores people’s impulse toward preservation and how it relates to the natural world, memory and legacy. During the course of the docu, produced by Sandbox Films, a wooden ark is constructed on Cheney’s parent’s property in Maine. The structure serves as both a physical storage space for archival materials and a symbolic representation of humanity’s desire to retain meaning in an impermanent world.
During the month of August, Cheney, along with Sandbox Films’ Greg Boustead and Jessica Harrop decided to transform the ark into the Ark Light Theatre – a 24-person screening room where “The Arc of Oblivion” will play to the public. Prior to each screening, live music is featured and hors d’oeuvres and wine are served. The unique cinematic experience is not only a way to bring viewers into the very heart of the director’s theoretical yet humorous project, but also a means to generate buzz around the docu before being four-walled this fall.
The unusual screening series was conceived after the doc premiered at CPH:DOX last March.
“When we were in Copenhagen, Greg said something like, ‘It will be interesting to see what becomes of (the film) in this year of very difficult distribution,” says Cheney.
“Then, in a kind of joking way, he said, ‘If nothing else, we can always show it in the ark.’ That got the wheels turning.”
Cheney came up with the idea for “The Arc of Oblivion” just prior to the pandemic. He sent Boustead and Harrop a three-page proposal, which read like a poem.
“We were like, this is the craziest thing I read,” says Boustead. “This makes no sense. Let’s absolutely do it.”
Initially, Sandbox committed to giving Cheney development financing.
“During that development process, Ian came up with the idea to build an actual physical ark and have that be the narrative structure of the film,” says Harrop. “So that all of the philosophical ideas could be tethered to a physical strand that the audience can follow.”
Despite being an audience favorite at CPH:DOX, Boustead knew that the doc market slowdown would impact the film.
“We are confident that this film will find a home, but it might take a beat,” Boustead says. “So, while we were in Copenhagen, I made the joke about playing the film on the ark. The thought was, wouldn’t it be neat if we thought of a meaningful way to play this film? Yes. We can throw this on a TVOD window and try to recoup X amount of dollars, but at the end of the day, that’s not why we are making films.”
Sandbox Films, which launched in 2020 at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, backs documentary films about scientific inquiry. The goal, Boustead told Variety at the time, is to “reinvent the science documentary so that they’re less didactic and like going to school.” (Sandbox fully funded Sara Dosa’s Oscar-nominated 2022 docu “Fire of Love.”) Cheney directed the very first Sandbox Films production, “The Most Unknown,” in 2018. The docu, which was co-production with Vice, became the proof of concept that ultimately led to the founding of Sandbox Films.
In addition to CPH:DOX, “The Arc of Oblivion” also screened at SXSW in March. August 5 marked the inaugural screening of the film at the Ark Light Theatre.
“By taking things into our own hands, I hope we will generate interest and excitement about the film,” Cheney says. “I also see these tiny screenings in the ark as worth doing regardless of which streamer or theatrical distributor later picks up the film. For me, these intimate screenings are a reminder that the impact of a film cannot solely be measured by the number of downloads or eyeballs,” he continues.
“So, I think especially in a time when a lot of filmmakers are so anxious about whether they will get their film on the biggest streaming platform possible and have that big global digital distribution, these are kind of a reminder to pay attention to the nooks and crannies of the independent film world as well.
“As a filmmaker, these intimate screenings can often be life changing.”
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