Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

‘Butterflies’ Doc to Gross $40+ Million. Trends in the Giant Screen Market. Nat Geo’s All Time Top 5 Hits

Jonathan Barker, CEO and president of SK Films updated and added depth to his analysis of trends across the ‘Giant Screen Museum Market’ which we published after MIPDoc 2013.

Here are

  • Jonathan’s Eight Takeaways on the GS market.
  • A revised mini-Case Study: Flight of the Butterflies, which is on track to gross $40+ million.
  • Plus: Nat Geo Cinema Ventures’ All-time Top 5. Note to file: Sea Monsters has grossed $52 million worldwide since 2007.


1. Projects that are originated for TV channels and then reformatted for GS are unlikely to work because GS has to be conceived as a theatrical experience.

  • Producers must focus on planning and executing a project for the Giant Screen, and then adapt it for TV
  • The reverse doesn’t work: that is to focus on the TV deliverable and ‘up-res’ it for GS exhibition.
  • Barker cited the development process for the “Amazon’ project which he is developing with the support of HHMI / Tangled Bank Studios. The film will tell the story of the great evolutionary biologist Henry Walter Bates (1825-92).

2. Producers must understand the unique audience for GS:

  • TV is a much narrower and more finely-targeted audience.
  • The GS audience is aged ‘8-98.’
  • A film just won’t be selected by GS exhibitors if its not appropriate for children.

3. You have to make a film that works for all projection systems: domes, 3D and GS:

  • ‘Bugs’ grossed $50 Mn and is still playing 10 years later.
  • Around 25% of our grosses for ‘Bugs’ have come from domes.

4. Films sell on title and topic:

  • None of the GS players (with the exception of some recent Warner Bros/IMAX collaborations) are branded studios with huge marketing budgets and brand recognition.
  • Most decisions are made by museum visitors as they stand in front of the box office, and knowing only topic, title and poster art.
  • Theaters won’t book a film without these elements being inherently strong.

flight of the butterflies revised poster 3

5. The biggest challenge is marketing:

  • Exhibitors are responsible for marketing, and yet they don’t have the budgets.
    • Non-profits operate more than 80% of the screens that exhibit documentary-style GS films.
  • And when times are tough, as they have been recently, most nonprofits cut their marketing budgets to preserve operations.

Production Cost Benchmarks for U.S. Factual Networks

  • What do 30 channels pay for programs?
  • For docs? And reality?
  • Is our commissioning team paying more or less than our competition?
  • Do preferred producers earn a premium?
  • Does my pitch fall in the budget sweet spot for my target network?

We interviewed dozens of executives and producers to create a unique source of proprietary information about network budgets for commissions and copro’s.

Read More

6. The economic model requires mission-dedicated funding:

  • For a hit GS film that grosses $40 Mn:
    • The exhibitor earns 75% ($30 Mn), leaving $10 Mn for the producer and distributor
    • Distribution fee is typically in the 25-35% range (say, $3.0 Mn)
    • Distribution costs are deductible ($2.0 Mn)
    • In this scenario, the producer recovers $5.0 Mn against a production budget of around $10 Mn.
    • The deficit is $5.0 Mn.
  • You need to understand:
    • The model is not sustainable on a financial basis.
    • Non-profits and/or sponsors and governments must be involved in funding GS projects.

7. The economic model is changing in two areas:

    A 3D analog print was $25,000 to $30,000 (normally paid by the exhibitor), but digitization has driven down the cost of prints to the hundreds. Many theaters are making the switch to digital. We are probably 2-3 years from the time when distributors will just give up on analog prints. Historically, Giant Screen films began as loss leaders for theater systems for IMAX Corp.
    The split from box office was generally around 80/20 in favor of the exhibitor so that they could recoup their investment in systems, prints and marketing. Consequently, huge grosses were needed for a GS film to be successful for producers. In the new reality, this split is now becoming more favorable to distributors.

8. Jonathan Barker is bullish:

  • “The big new opportunity is to expand the market of museums with digital screens of all sizes and deliver programming that is family friendly and consistent with their mission.”
  • “These newcomers, with smaller audiences per venue, will deliver less revenue per venue than big players like the Smithsonian and La Geode, but there are many of them potentially coming on line.”


CASE STUDY: Flight of the Butterflies

  • Production budget: $10 million.
  • Marketing + fulfillment: $3 million.


  • National Science Foundation $3 million.
  • Mexico: governments: $4.5 million.
  • Mexico: corporate sponsors $1.6 million.
  • Balance: Tax credits in UK and Canada and SK/private investment.


  • October 2012.
  • Has played on 147 screens.
  • Will have played on 250+ screens by end of run.


  • Will gross $40+ million.
  • (A hit nowadays is $30-50 million.)
  • “Will have a good life on television after the first few years of its prime theatrical life.”
  • Recently screened on CBC-Canada’s Nature of Things

Viewer Impact

  • Each non-profit funder wants to see their investment in a GS film pay off via an impact on a sizable audience:
  • For Butterflies, Barker estimates 8 million GS tickets sold.
  • CBC-Canada TV version: Premiere attracted 800,000 viewers.
  • Other TV markets will follow.

SK Pipeline

  • SK Films produces one in-house GS film at a time and as a distributor will release no more than one or two films per year.
  • The Amazon project that is currently in an advanced stage of development will be budgeted at $10+ million.
  • SK separately produces television: Currently in season 2 of The Water Brothers for TVO in Canada, sold internationally by Sky Vision.
  • SK is based in Toronto.


Our Takeaways from Sunnyside of the Doc 2012:

This unique niche generates remarkable box office receipts for a handful of long-running hits. Although these box office #’s are not fully verified, and noting that the US generates a (diminishing) share of the worldwide grosses, here are the All-time Top 5 domestic GS box office hits (US millions):

The Dream is Alive  $125.9 (1985)
Everest  $87.2 (1998)
To Fly!  $86.6 (1976)
Space Station  $85.0 (2002)
Antarctica  $65.0 (1991)

Don’t miss our panel on Giant Screen docs at Asian Side of the Doc, in Chengdu!


Nat Geo GS Hits

Mark Katz, President of Distribution for National Geographic Entertainment’s Cinema Ventures group adds a cautionary word about the published box office data for GS docs.

Mark generously shared Nat Geo’s Top 5 All Time

TitleRelease DateWorldwide Box office 
Mysteries of EgyptJun-98 $110,000,000.00
(app 45/55 domestic & int’l)
Sea MonstersOct-07 $51,650,000.00
(app 50/50 domestic & int’l)
Forces of NatureMay-04 $46,000,000.00
Lewis & ClarkApr-02 $42,000,000.00
ShackletonFeb-97 $40,000,000.00
The Human BodyOct-01 $40,000,000.00


Speaking Engagements

How Audience Research Can Make or Break Your Pitch
Realscreen Masterclass
Sunday, January 26, 2014 1:30 PM – 3:30 PM, Georgetown East

Brad DancerMaster Class Leader, SVP, Programming, Planning and Research
National Geographic Channel
Brent StinskiMaster Class Leader, Founder and CEO Media Predict
Peter HamiltonModerator

Asian Side of the Doc
Chengdu, China, March 18-21, 2014
Panel: Crowd-funding Platforms in Asia
Panel: 3D / IMAX/ BIG SCREENS for Docs

Cannes, April 5-6, 2014
Panel: How to Get the Funds: Co-pro’s and Foundations
Interview: Louis Vaudeville, CC&C Paris: The Apocalypse Franchise

AND, don’t miss Hot Docs in the Big TO.
April 24 – May 4, 2014

BTW, We just began to prepare with the Hot Docs team our hot-selling annual International Documentary Program Buyers’ Guide