Corporate consolidation, along with shrinking publicity budgets and streaming services’ willingness to bury their own content, have made film festivals and series increasingly desirable to documentary filmmakers who are not only seeking distribution, but also to those nonfiction helmers who have found a platform for their work.
The rocky landscape has made the competition fierce for a slot at not only top-tier festivals, but also regional film events like New York’s Rooftop Films’ Summer Series.
Over the course of the last year, Rooftop Films president Dan Nuxoll received 3,500 film submissions for the nonprofit organization’s 27th annual Summer Series, which kicks off on May 25. Only 23 feature films were accepted. (Not all films have been announced.)
Fourteen of the 23 features Nuxoll chose are documentaries. include high profile docs like Chris Smith’s “WHAM!” (Netflix), Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s “The Stroll” (HBO Documentary Films), Sacha Jenkins’ “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” (Apple TV+), Cecilia Aldarondo’s “You Were My First Boyfriend” (HBO), Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro’s “Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes,” (PBS) Laura McGann’s “The Deepest Breath” (Netflix) D. Smith’ “Kokomo City” (Magnolia) and Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp’s “Bobi Wine: The People’s President” (National Geographic). The remaining six docus in the lineup — Kaveh Nabatian’s “Kite Zo A: Leave the Bones” Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn’s “Going Varsity in Mariachi,” Sierra Urich’s “Joonam,” Ben Mullinkosson’s “The Last Year of Darkness,” Elizabeth Mirzaei’s “Natalia” and Ian Cheney’s “The Arc of Oblivion” — do not have a distributor.
Variety spoke with Nuxoll about this year’s Summer Series lineup.
What is the throughline that connects the 23 films you selected to be part of the slate this year?
We are an organization that screens in communities all around the city and we think a lot about where we are showing each of our films and how to make each screening special. For instance, “Going Varsity in Mariachi” has a particular appeal to Latin audiences in New York City and Mexican American audiences in New York City. So, we will be doing a big free outdoor screening in Sunset Park, which is a majority Spanish speaking neighborhood. For “Kite Zo A” (about Haitian musical traditions) we are partnering with a bunch of different Caribbean organizations. A different Haitian musical dance will be playing before (the film’s screening) in Bed-Stuy to reach the Caribbean community in that part of Brooklyn. Similarly, with “Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes,” about the great jazz drummer Max Roach we will be showing that film just a few blocks from where Max Roach grew up in Brooklyn. That screening will kick off a year worth of celebrations for Max Roach’s upcoming 100th birthday. Roach’s children will be at the screening, as well as the filmmakers and a jazz band will play beforehand. So, I’d say the throughline is our reach and the impact that we can have on each film.
Due to the current distribution landscape, did you feel any pressure this year to program docus that have not been acquired?
Absolutely. Our programming has pretty consistently been a balance between films with and without distribution. But distribution is always something we take into account and something we think about a lot when we program the lineup. The biggest change that I see today is that you have a lot of films that not so very long ago would certainly have found distribution that aren’t finding distribution. “Going Varsity in Mariachi” is a good example. That’s a film that in past years you would have certainly seen picked up because it’s not a very niche film. It’s a crowd pleaser. The responsibility that we feel now, and really have always felt, but maybe it’s a little bit more pressing now, is to make sure that each screening event is special to the greatest extent possible. We really want to make sure that we’re reaching a big audience for each film because it might be the only event that that film gets in New York.
More than half of the docs in the Summer Series lineup have a distributor. Does it make it easier financially for Rooftop if the film has a distributor, since you are putting on elaborate and, I’m assuming, pricey events?
Sometimes distributors are helping financially and sometimes they do not. The same company might have a huge budget one year for events like this and no budget the following year. Or they might, for whatever internal reasons, have a huge budget for one documentary and have zero dollar budget for another one. So, it varies.
Do you see the Tribeca Festival, which takes place during the Rooftop’s Summer Series, as competition?
The vibe of a Rooftop show is very different then a Tribeca event. Rooftop is much less red carpet. Also, Tribeca is nine days and we are going for 13 weeks. It’s not that there’s no crossover between our audiences, but in so many ways there is a lot of differences. We originally thought that it would be a pain in our butt when Tribeca moved from April to June but in reality, it doesn’t interfere with our programming.
Rooftop’s Summer Series outdoor film festival will run through August 24 at iconic locations across New York City’s five boroughs.
The 14 documentaries screening at Rooftop’s Summer Series are:
“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues”
May 30 at Louis Armstrong House
June 5 at Gansevoort Plaza, Meatpacking District
“Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes”
June 17 at Von King Park
June 29 at Industry City
“The Deepest Breath”
July 7 at Brooklyn Army Terminal
“You Were My First Boyfriend”
July 12 at Gansevoort Plaza, Meatpacking District
July 25 at Fort Greene Park
“Bobi Wine: The People’s President”
July 27 at SummerStage Central Park
July 27 at Brooklyn Commons
“The Last Year of Darkness”
July 29 at The Old American Can Factory
“The Arc of Oblivion”
August 1 at Brooklyn Grange Sunset Park
“Going Varsity in Mariachi”
August 5 at Brooklyn Army Terminal
Date and Venue To Be Announced