A raging firestorm on Nov. 8, 2018, engulfed the small town of Paradise, California, displacing some 50,000 residents and destroying 95% of local structures. The new documentary "Rebuilding Paradise," directed by two-time Oscar winner Ron Howard, details the year that followed as the town attempts to come back from the devastation.
The film premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival, back when things like film festivals and movie releases seemed commonplace. Now the movie and its filmmaking team are faced with the unexpected challenge of how to release a documentary in the post-COVID moment, a vastly changed landscape from the one they originally anticipated.
The strategy that emerged for "Rebuilding Paradise" was an innovation born of necessity. National Geographic, which produced the documentary, had planned to air it in November, for the second anniversary of the Camp fire, which killed 86 people and plunged utility company PG&E into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. But first, it wanted to give the well-reviewed film a proper theatrical rollout.
The movie is playing in about 70 domestic markets through a hybrid approach, which includes virtual cinemas, a dozen carefully selected traditional indoor theaters, or "hard tops," and a drive-in theater. The film's unveiling comes at a time when Hollywood studios continue to delay their big releases because of prolonged theater closures.
Speaking recently from his home in Connecticut, Howard noted he had himself been trying to book tickets for a local drive-in all summer, but it keeps selling out.
"Look, under these circumstances any way anybody can see anything, I appreciate it," said Howard. "And particularly a documentary."
To manage the release of "Rebuilding Paradise," National Geographic and Imagine Entertainment (the company Howard co-founded with producer Brian Grazer) brought in Pleasantville, New York-based distributor Abramorama. The firm traffics mainly in special-event releases for documentaries and particularly music films. Abramorama previously worked with Ron Howard to release his 2016 documentary, "The Beatles: Eight Days A Week -- The Touring Years."
"Under different circumstances, this would have been a robust national release in theaters. The film deserves that," said Abramorama founder and CEO Richard Abramowitz.
"A film like this traditionally would have gotten the widest release possible and then played on National Geographic and then eventually through Disney onto their streaming platform," said Justin Wilkes, president of Imagine Documentaries and a producer on the film. "So our mission here was, let's offer this. Essentially any theater, any theater chain that wanted it. And it's been sort of on a literally day-by-day basis, checking in with those theaters to see who has the ability to show it in a physical form and then others that are going to show it virtually."
Most cinemas, such as Los Angeles-based chain Laemmle Theatres, can't show the film on the big screen because of restrictions due to the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, the seven-location exhibitor must release the film through "virtual cinema" screenings, an innovation to help keep art houses afloat during a period when they can't operate. With virtual cinema, patrons can rent a digital version of a new film from their local theater's website to watch at home. The movies usually cost $10 to $12 to rent for three days.