Annie Roney, founder and CEO of Sausalito’s ro*co films, has defied the odds. She did this by establishing a financially successful independent film distribution company while representing only documentaries, an often undervalued genre in the film world. And she did it again as she managed to stay put and raise her family here in Marin County, rather than packing up for Hollywood or New York as she grew the company. And despite all these unconventional choices, Roney is one of the most respected independent film distributors in the business, a go-to resource for documentarians worldwide who place a priority on story over glossy curb appeal.
The 16-year-old ro*co now represents over 200 documentaries, popular films such as Born Into Brothels, Hoop Dreams, The Future of Food, Inequality for All, The Weather Underground, Jesus Camp, Race to Nowhere, Miss Representation, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Life Animated, An Inconvenient Sequel and dozens of other award-winning works. In other words, the company represents a large portion of the small handful of documentaries we’ve heard of, films with extensive international and domestic distribution. “We understand that the reason we get to represent these films is because of the way we think about filmmakers — they are at the heart of what we do every day,” Roney says.
The world of filmmaking is cutthroat and, for some distributors, filmmakers and their stories are secondary; the primary focus is on markets. But Roney, who has garnered not only respect but significant accolades, including a Career Achievement Award from the Women’s International Film Festival and an Inspiration Award at the renowned Sheffield Documentary Festival in England, says she was drawn to this career because of an abiding respect for human stories. She has spent twoand- a-half decades navigating the ever-changing landscape of documentary film distribution, never taking her gaze off the prize: maximum exposure for the films, in venues ranging from megaplexes to the back rooms of local libraries. Being the playmaker, representing our best journalists and storytellers and ensuring that critical stories make it to the public eye — this, she says, is what fuels her.
“My mom was a journalist in Salt Lake City. She did radio documentaries and had a weekly call-in talk show about social issues,” Roney says. “I loved going to the newsroom with her; I loved the energy of the newsroom.” When the red “On Air” sign was lit and she couldn’t be with her mother, she stood next to the dot matrix printer and watched Associated Press stories come through. “I thought that was the most amazing thing, to see these stories coming in, and to be knowledgeable about what was happening around the world.” Interested in human behavior, she studied psychology in college, but wasn’t clear about where to go with her career. She had a few internships and post-college jobs she describes as “soul-sucking.” When she took a break to recalibrate, she knew she wanted to work in the media.
“I don’t know if it still exists in San Francisco but I joined an organization called Media Alliance to access their job bank,” she recalls. “I paid a membership fee and went into a room full of binders — this was pre-internet — and found my dream job in one of those binders.” She applied and went to work for CS Associates in Mill Valley, a company managing international distribution for the respected documentaries of the time — Ken Burns films, PBS’s Frontline and Nova films, independent films like Dark Circle and The Day After Trinity. “I had nine years riding on the coattails of this company,” she says. Starting at the entry level with zero experience, she came out having established working relationships with commissioning editors around the world.
Then came the next big leap of faith. In 2000, as a mother of young children, Roney struggled to balance the demands of home and workplace and recognized that it would be ideal to be her own boss. “I realized that I could take all the tools and start my own company. I had the know-how and I had the contacts.” The only thing missing was a film to represent. After screening a documentary called Regret to Inform, a powerful film about the Vietnam War from the perspective of a U.S. war widow, she contacted well-known Bay Area executive producer Janet Cole. “I credit her with giving me my start,” she says now. “The film had already won awards at Sundance and was already nominated for an Oscar, and here comes this new person out of nowhere saying ‘I’m going to start a company’ and she decided to trust me.”
Roney took the film to Cannes and met with “every international buyer of documentary film out there.” Lo and behold, every single buyer acquired the film. It was then, with this auspicious launch, that she truly understood the magic formula for her fledgling company: it was never going to be about quantity. She would only take on films that she cared about at what she calls the “heart level.”
In the coming years Roney added seven employees, who all happen to be women — a happy accident, in her words. Those employees have worked out so well that the company hasn’t had an opportunity to hire men full time. Roney emphatically uses “we” rather than “I” when describing ro*co accomplishments, and she repeatedly credits the team with providing the infrastructure to support representation of so many quality films.
Raising her children as she grew the company, Roney sometimes screened films at home with her toddlers by her side. They could not comprehend the content, she recalls, but when they were mesmerized by beautiful cinematography she duly noted it. She continued to rely on the heart- level approach, which has worked out well; in ro*co’s 16-year history the company has represented an Oscar-nominated film (or two) all but one of those years.
Describing the history of her company — the evolution from international-distribution- only to distribution in limited U.S. markets and the establishment of ro*co Educational, ro*co Production, ro*co Digital and EVOD (educational video on demand), a subscription platform for educational and community institutions — Roney comes off like a chess player recounting strategic decisions. And yet she makes it sound easy.
One big decision was to bring together an international coalition of buyers at Sundance two years ago: “We wanted to help foreign broadcasters be competitive with global deals inked at Sundance,” she says. “Broadcasters such as the BBC were missing out on some films they used to be able to get because global digital companies such as Netflix and Amazon were investing in documentaries and buying world rights. So we formed a coalition of multiple broadcasters across the globe who, through us, have been able to act as one single buyer.”
Another recent triumph: last year, a group of French filmmakers were working to complete a documentary called Becoming Cary Grant, but they needed finishing funds. “The filmmakers couldn’t get any traction in the U.S. so they leaned on us to be their U.S. reps,” Roney says, adding casually, “We were able to secure a Showtime deal so they could finish the film. It premiered at Cannes in May and aired on Showtime in June.”
As complex as distribution has become with the rise of subscription video on demand (SVOD), large digital companies competing for international distribution rights, and Hollywood concerns reaching for pieces of the pie, it is a very exciting time in documentary land. “It’s shifting. It’s never the same day twice,” Roney says. “But there is a lot of money being thrown at documentaries right now. I don’t know if that will stay, as I’ve seen trends come and go, but docs seem to be celebrating a sunny day, around the world.”
She salutes Netflix algorithms for getting people into the genre and offering viewers a positive experience. “We are a direct content provider for Netflix, and iTunes, and Amazon and Google Play, so we have a perspective on how these new platforms are working.”
Roney’s perspective on both the big-picture and the nuanced aspects of the digital age is invaluable for documentarians who may not be sure of their opportunities. That’s particularly true when it comes to international distribution rights, which often get bundled into domestic deals, curtailing significant opportunities abroad. “The stakes for these films have never been higher,” Roney wrote in a recent IDA (International Documentary Association) online op-ed. “Documentaries are playing a bigger role than they ever have in our global media, as the genre continues to grow in popularity, and as many documentary filmmakers have taken on much of today’s investigative journalism. Considering the kind of impact a documentary can make, it is critical that the full spectrum of international rights is thoughtfully strategized.”
As always in Annie Roney’s business, an evolving landscape means an evolving strategy. Recently, because “now everyone in L.A. also has a documentary they are working on,” the ro*co team set up an office in Los Angeles. This office, the first ro*co satellite, is described in Roney’s signature “no big deal” fashion.
Making documentary films is notoriously difficult, and making a living making documentary films is even more difficult, but testimonies from filmmakers make it clear they feel they have a friend in the business. Peter Bratt, director of Dolores, the recently released and highly acclaimed film about farmworker rights activist Dolores Huerta, secured U.S. distribution with the newly formed PBS Theatrical through ro*co. “In this increasingly cynical world,” he writes, “it’s hard to find a true believer — someone who still holds that your word is your bond, that your actions matter; someone who pays attention to all the little details and tries to make things better every day.”
Roney’s response to the praise? “We are humbled,” she says, shaking her head. “Every time a filmmaker reaches out to us, we are humbled.”
Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.