Can investors benefit from the golden age of the theatrical documentary?

11 mins. to read
Can investors benefit from the golden age of the theatrical documentary?

As seen in this month’s issue of Master Investor Magazine.

The world of film regularly makes for incredible headlines about commercial success, such as the new Jurassic Park grossing an incredible $511 million during the first weekend alone, which set a new record. Investors who funded the sequel to the wildly successful 1990s movie no doubt made a killing. However, regular bombastic headlines about box office hits aside, the world of film is not an easy one to make money in.

Falling advertising revenues, competition amongst a plethora of media channels, digital piracy, and broadcasters like the BBC having to cut spending to make up for decreasing TV licence income, all conspire to make life for filmmakers even more difficult – and also, more complex – than it used to be. Outside of the rarified world of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, filmmakers struggle to raise funds, and investors in turn struggle to make money out of films.

Yet there are opportunities to be exploited, and the changing times work in favour of some operators. One of the areas getting increasing attention is the funding of high quality documentaries for release in cinemas. Here, a growing number of stunning financial success stories has been observed during the past 10 years, which in turn has heightened investors’ attention. Although creative and innovative long-form documentaries have largely disappeared from our TV screens, in the cinema they have seen an unprecedented and perhaps surprising revival over the last decade.

Master Investor came across the interesting case of Amir Amirani, a London-based filmmaker who has succeeded in using some aspects of the brave new world the film industry is experiencing to his advantage. Using technology to keep production costs low, utilising celebrity backing on social media to build his audience, and incorporating crowdfunding into the early phase of his project funding: Amir’s work ticks all the right boxes.

He is looking to raise another round of funding to properly launch his movie onto the big screen around the world. With his current project already being part-funded by several industry professionals, we grew curious and went to investigate.

Our editor, Swen Lorenz, caught up with Amir to get his view of the world of film funding in general, and the inside scoop about his own upcoming funding round.

MI: Your movie We Are Many has already hit cinemas in the UK. Tell us what your film is about.

AA: We Are Many is a feature length documentary on the story and legacy of the biggest protest in history, which took place on 15 February 2003. That day that saw an estimated 30 million people in over 700 cities around the world come together to demonstrate against a second Iraq war. Rome was the scene of the biggest demonstration of them all, with around three million people hitting the streets. London had about two million people. This was a pivotal moment in recent history, and one that gave birth to a new global social movement. My film documents unknown ordinary people reaching for the extraordinary, and achieving it!

MI: Given how close this entire subject matter is to the heart of many people in the UK, you decided to take a new approach to funding the movie. Tell us about the Kickstarter campaign you created in 2011 to raise the seed funding.

AA: We Are Many became the first significant UK film to carry out a major crowdfunding campaign. At the time, raising $25,000 for a film through crowdfunding was considered the absolute maximum. I reached for $70,000. Given that I had to achieve an overall budget of closer to $1 million to create a quality film, it seemed I should aim high in order to make a significant step forward.

MI: What happened then?

AA: It was incredible. Stephen Fry tweeted a call to action to his nine million followers to support our fundraising campaign. The actor/comedian Omid Djalili saw it and committed to matching whatever we raised on Kickstarter. Richard O’Brien, the writer of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, stepped forward with a similar message and donated. Even the Hollywood film maker, Oliver Stone, backed our campaign. In the end, we raised $92,000 from 658 backers on the Internet. No one had done anything similar for a British film product. One of our donors on Kickstarter turned out to be the inventor of Google Maps.

MI: Backers of a Kickstarter campaign can get merchandise, VIP tickets, and similar non-financial returns. However, they don’t get their money back nor do they get a conventional investment return. Following this initial step, you raised money from conventional investors who are looking for a return. How did this phase of the funding work?

AA: I set up a limited company and registered it with the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS). Based on a business plan for the entire film project, I raised £580,000 from nine investors, ranging in size from £10,000 to £200,000. I did the entire fundraising myself using my network and building on some of the incredible endorsements I had received by then. Of course, the legal and finance legwork was handled by lawyers and accountants.

MI: What are the basic terms under which they are investing?

AA: The nine investors are all sitting alongside each other, and additionally there is my own production company as a stakeholder. Any revenue from the movie will first have to repay the original investment and a deferred salary for myself. Once that has been paid up, all further revenue is split 50/50 between the investors and my company.

MI: You raised a serious amount of money for what is an entirely illiquid investment. Surely there must have been the expectation of a potentially significant return on investment? How much money is there to be made from producing a successful documentary for release in cinemas?

AA: You have to realise that in amidst all the changes in the media landscape, documentaries have actually done fairly well, in a peculiar way. Whereas broadcaster funding for TV documentaries has become much harder to come by, funding for documentaries that are shown in cinemas has actually been on the up. The 1990s saw a number of documentaries launched in cinemas, albeit with generally quite limited success. Since the early 2000s, however, you have had a number of game-changing success stories in this field. The most prominent one, of course, being Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11”, which grossed $119 million globally. Moore also produced “Bowling for Columbine”, which brought in $25 million, and “Sicko”, which had takings of $22 million. The budgets for these movies weren’t particularly high, or put another way, investors did make a killing.

MI: What are the obstacles to producing such a success story?

AA: The lead time for producing a top-quality documentary can be very long. In my case, I had to dedicate seven years of my life to the project. Film funding doesn’t come with high overhead rates, which limits the amount of salary you can expect before a film has become a success. During this period, I remortgaged my house several times and lived off £20,000 per year, which in London is extremely tough. The biggest hurdle to achieving success, once you have actually produced the film, is distribution and marketing – how to get the film in front of a large audience, and how to make sure this audience is interested in the first place. This requires further investment, because distributors want to see the producers of the movie to play a role in funding the marketing costs.

MI: Your film has actually already launched. Explain to us the different steps and phases to a film launch.

AA: During 2014, We Are Many was shown at a number of festivals, and won plaudits. In May 2015, the film launched officially in cinemas the UK, and it has since then been shown in over 100 cinemas across the entire UK. However, this was done without a major film distributor backing us. This limited release has produced enthusiastic reactions from the media, from celebrities, and from a large number of movie watchers. But it has not yet been the massive roll-out that you’d have to carry out to achieve a global presence in cinemas and achieve the maximum return for the investors.

MI: You are now working to raise funding for marketing and a global distribution deal…

AA: Just like in other areas, funding for independent films is raised based on achieving milestones. The repeated celebrity endorsements We Are Many received and the reaction from media and audience showed that there is a market for it. But the window of opportunity for a global marketing push is limited. The story is “hot” now, not the least because of the current developments in the Middle East, which tie right in with the film and link back to that day in February 2003. I now have to strike this iron while it’s hot.

MI: What are your next steps then?

AA: I have already received tentative offers from distribution partners that would like to purchase the rights for the rest of the world, including cinema and ancillary rights: TV, DVD, online, etc. With the US Presidential elections coming up next year, and Jeb Bush potentially running for President, the timing couldn’t be better. We Are Many is, after all, a political movie. To achieve maximum attention and success, we now need to raise the funds for a global marketing and distribution campaign in late 2015 and 2016. We will need to raise $500,000 to $1 million in “marketing”, or what in film terms is called Print and Advertising costs (“P&A”) to support a global launch across different platforms. I am looking at the possibility of getting this funded through sponsorship or donations, but I am also looking at the possibility of raising conventional investment. In any case, this is the order of magnitude of funds I am now working to raise, i.e. it basically requires a doubling of the original budget, but could lead to a multiplying of the revenue the film generates.

MI: What sort of return can investors expect?

AA: I have a finished product, i.e. there is no more risk to the production actually not getting finished. I have incredible feedback from those who have seen the movie. Among my early investors are people like Callum McDougall, one of the Executive Producers of James Bond’s Skyfall movie, Pippa Harris of Neal Street Productions (Revolutionary Road, Jarhead), Omid Djalili (The Infidel, Gladiator), and later supporters include Signe Sorenson (Producer of the Oscar Nominated The Act of Killing). With what we have achieved during the past years, I have de-risked this project to a large extent and now it needs to be scaled up. If we turned this into a similar success to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s movie about climate change, we’d be looking at a total investment of around $2 million and revenue of $25 million. A more modest example to compare the movie to is Inside Job, the documentary about the financial crisis of 2008, which brought in $4.3 million and presumably must have been quite lucrative for its backers.

Most of the investors I got onboard for the first phase simply liked the project and whereas they hope and expect to recoup their capital, they primarily wanted to be part of a high end documentary. Their primary aim hasn’t been a financial killing, but we hope of course that it makes a good profit and funding the next phase through conventional investment is definitely an option I am looking at.

Obviously, with investors that show a concrete interest I am happy to share revenue projections and scenarios. Returns can range from a double digit percentage gain to multiplying the investors‘ funds.

MI: Are you going to ask your existing investors for top-up funding?

AA: Yes, they will of course have a right of first refusal for further funding rounds. They funded the truly risky part, so now that it becomes commercially more interesting to invest because there might be a relatively quick pay-off, I’ll have to offer existing investors the opportunity to up their investment. Nevertheless, new investors are welcome.

MI: How can investors who are interested in your project get in touch with you?

AA: Being an avid user of digital technology, you can find me on LinkedIn or reach out to me via email:

MI: One last question! There were two million people on the streets in London. Wouldn’t it make sense to reach out to them and say, “Hey, what you participated in back in 2003 is now hitting the cinema. Go and watch it!” Could this be a marketing angle to get lots and lots of people into the cinema?

AA: Count on us doing just that!

MI: Thank you for the general insights into the industry and the background about your project. Good luck! And as someone who has actually seen your movie already, all I can do now is to recommend to our readers to see it for themselves. The trailer is on YouTube, and even these 90 seconds are a powerful cinematic experience:


Where to see We Are Many in the UK:





Amir Amirani is a London based film maker of Iranian origin. Over the last 15 years Amir has made films for some of British television’s most prestigious series, including Arena, Timewatch, Picture This, Correspondent and Newsnight. In films that have received critical acclaim, Amir has covered the life and death of Concorde, the crazy world of awards and awards ceremonies, Jimi Hendrix’s house in London, music under Apartheid, the arms trade with the writer Will Self, the challenges of sex change in Iran, and the horrors of chemical warfare in the Iran-Iraq war. Two of his documentaries have been nominated for an Amnesty International Award and One World Broadcasting Trust Award. He went to the BBC in 1992 as a Graduate Production Trainee and two years later joined his brother Taghi in setting up Amirani Films. Amir has produced and presented programmes for BBC Radio 4. They include In Business, From Our Own Correspondent and documentaries on Iranian comedy and poetry. His journalism includes writing for The Guardian, New Statesman, New Scientist, Business Traveller Asia and the Economist Intelligence Unit. He has a First Class (Hons.) degree in Biology from Nottingham University, and an M.Phil in International Relations from Cambridge University.

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