Hot Docs Jots

25 Years of Hot Docs: 112 WEDDINGS

To celebrate 25 years, Hot Docs Jots explores the legacy of former Hot Docs Forum projects.

In our first 25 Years of Hot Docs, we talk to Doug Block about pitching his crowd-pleasing 112 Weddings at the 2012 Hot Docs Forum and his personal film 51 Birch Street at the 2004 Forum, and what the financing landscape looked like at the time.

Hot Docs: Was 112 Weddings a difficult film to finance?

Doug Block: Of all the films I’ve worked on it was the least difficult, in large part because HBO was on board very early. I told Lisa Heller about the idea maybe a decade before I even made the film, and she kept asking about it whenever I saw her. When I finally started to make the film in 2012, I showed HBO some footage and they came on board—also because I think I’ve built on the success of previous films over the years. HBO sat with me and my producing partner Lori Cheatle at the Hot Docs Forum, so that was huge. To have HBO there next to you is about as good as it gets when you’re pitching a film.


HD: Why was 112 Weddings the first film in a long time that wasn't an essay film about your own family? 

DB: At the time I didn’t know whether my family was going to be included or not, and I think that’s the most interesting aspect of how the Hot Docs Forum changed things. I got it to HBO before the Forum and we did put a 20-minute version together that incorporated a little bit of my own marriage. We talked to some broadcasters and distributors ahead of time and they either told me or hinted it would be easier to sell if I wasn’t in it. So when it was time to do the four-minute trailer for the Forum, we cut out any kind of personal story, and I remember those buyers were suddenly really interested in it. That’s one of the impacts of being at the Forum: being able to refocus the story. 

HD: What do you remember from your pitching days?

DB: I pitched 51 Birch Street at the Forum in 2004 and that was really memorable. I’d never pitched formally before, and personal docs were not commonly pitched at the Forum in those days. We had a couple of days of training; I was bumbling and fumbling and I didn’t feel like I was doing very well. I remember, after completing the pitch, going to my seat and sitting down, and being exhausted and feeling like: "Oh my god, I survived." We were pretty far along in production, I think we only needed the last $50,000 or so, so the pressure wasn’t enormous; And again, we had HBO sitting at the table with us. There was a lot of positive response to it, so it really helped sales. I think the biggest outcome from pitching 112 Weddings in 2012 was that BBC Storyville followed up shortly after, CBC came on board, SVT, and most importantly in terms of distribution, Dogwoof. They were great and we loved having them on board early, and it was great getting feedback from them.

HD: How early in your production process was this point?

DB: I usually don’t make a sample and start pitching until I’m almost, if not completely, done with the shooting. It's one of the real advantages I have of making films the way I do. I'm a one-person crew, and so I can shoot most, if not all of the film without funding, which enables me to make a fundraising sample that is pretty evolved, and that can show a story arc and a character arc. So, anybody that’s coming on board is coming into an idea that’s pretty far along. They either buy into it or they don’t.

I have this big thing about not starting with the editor until I know we have the money to pay her all the way through; that we’re not going to run out of money in the rough cut. I think that’s the golden rule, because you’re paying them for two months to watch the footage, so you don’t want to lose them part-way through.

HD: Between pitching in 2004 and 2012, did it feel like the landscape had changed at all? 

DB: It was pretty much the same players, but I think the landscape has changed enormously since 2012. There’s been a huge change in the landscape, between Amazon and Netflix, and a lot of the old guard either isn't there, has stepped way back, or just aren’t the major players anymore. It’s a little disconcerting, but others come in.

HD: What's the trajectory of 112 Weddings since its release four years ago?

DB: First of all, it had a great festival run; we sold out every screening, and then they would add extra screenings and those would sell out. I think the main reason was the logline: "Wedding videomaker goes back and visits nine of the couples whose weddings he filmed, to check in on their marriages." It kind of sold itself.

The crowds were of all demographics. We got all these awards in Asia for it; won an audience prize in South Korea, a grand jury prize at China’s biggest documentary festival. We had a really good festival life, and I was surprised how long it lasted, because I think it was only two and a half months until we were broadcast on HBO. But I was surprised at how many festivals took it, and then how well it did, even after the broadcast. It became clear to me that things were changing already in terms of how you could and couldn’t release a film. It was also clear to me, at the time, that it was getting really hard for documentaries in the theatrical landscape, so I was OK about not doing theatrical in the US for 112 Weddings. It helped that Dogwoof opened it theatrically in Canada and Europe

HD: How do you think 51 Birch Street112 Weddings, and The Kids Grow Up will age?

DB: I hope they’ll age well, because they were meant to be stories that would hold up no matter when you saw them. I worry much more about the formats.  Already all the stuff that we have 51 Birch Street and The Kids Grow Up saved on, those digibeta tapes that we made at enormous expense, don’t have anything to be played back on. Now they want the digital formats. All that work we did for a Quicktime file!

HD: Twenty-five years ago, it was 1993.  Where were you in your career? 

DB: I think in 1993 I was producing Silverlake Life. I'd worked really hard on my first film, The Heck with Hollywood!. It's the time-honoured problem of first films that you desperately want a producer to help you, but you don’t have the money, you don’t have the track record to attract one, so you wind up producing yourself, and it takes years and years and years, but you learn. The Heck with Hollywood! actually did really well on the festival circuit, and then played on PBS. 

My friend Peter Friedman showed me footage from the film he was making called Silverlake Life. It was right at the height of the AIDS epidemic; it was about his film teacher at Hampshire, Tom Joslin, and Tom’s lover, Mark Massi. They’d been together twenty-two years, couldn’t marry at the time, and both were dying of AIDS, and they kept a video diary of what they thought was going to be Mark’s last few months before he died, because they thought it was really important for people to see what it’s like to live and die of AIDS. But it was also this incredibly beautiful and profound love story about their relationship, and Peter showed me about a half hour of footage, and I think I was the first person he’d shown in the US. Before I even knew what was coming out of my mouth (because I hate producing and do it out of necessity), I said: "Do you need help producing this? I'll help you."  

It was just so hard to work on—we worked around the clock to get it done in time. In those days, you had to transfer video to film, and I remember Peter flew out to the opening night of Sundance, after he picked up the untimed answer print in a lab in LA that afternoon, and got there just in time. He said it was very brown, but it showed, and it wound up being the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner.  It was such a powerful, groundbreaking film that I’m so proud of. So that's how I spent 1993, helping to get Silverlake Life out into the world.

HD: If you could give a piece of advice to yourself in 1993, what would it be?

DB: I love this quote…and for the longest time I didn’t know who it was attributed to. I’ve since learned that it may have been Eleanor Roosevelt, but it was an anonymous quote I came across and printed out. I still have it up on my wall right there, and it goes: "You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do." When you’re making personal docs, that’s a real lifesaver. But I’ve also found that in almost every walk of life, that one just applies across the board, and it’s really liberating.  

Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo of Hot Docs. 

Categories: Director's Notebook , Industry Landscape


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