Canadian copro Lanzmann snags HBO deal

The indie film about the iconic Shoah director has also been sold to Germany, France and Denmark, ahead of a 2016 debut on the U.S. channel.

An early deal out of the Hot Docs film fest has seen Adam Benzine’s Canada-UK coproduction Lanzmann picked up by HBO Documentary Films.

To be retitled Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, the film chronicles a 12-year struggle to make the nine-and-a-half-hour long masterwork about the German death camps in Poland. The film debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in 1986 and the PBS aired it over four nights in 1987.

Benzine, the former associate editor of Playback sister pub Realscreen, said the deal first started to percolate when he emailed HBO Documentary Films programming VP Sara Bernstein to let her know he was directing a film about the iconoclastic French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann and the making of his landmark 1985 Holocaust film Shoah.

Bernstein replied to send her the film when it was finished, which he did with an early fine cut.

“I’d been told by friends that if Sara likes your film, she’d get back to the filmmaker quite quickly,” Benzine said.

Around three weeks went by and the Toronto-based filmmaker lowered his hopes for the self-financed 40-minute documentary to land on the U.S. premium cable channel. But then he received an email from Bernstein indicating she looked forward to screening the film.

So, recognizing she hadn’t yet seen the doc, Benzine sent Bernstein a near final cut as the Hot Docs debut of Lanzmann loomed. Within days, Benzine received a “we need to talk” message from Bernstein.

The result is HBO Documentary Films on Tuesday announcing it has picked up the U.S. TV rights to Benzine’s film, to be retitled as Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah for U.S. TV audiences unaware of the French filmmaker.

The HBO deal follows the film premiering at Hot Docs on Saturday night, and then screening again on Tuesday before a final showing on Friday night at Innis Hall.

Benzine and co-producer Kimberley Warner also negotiated sales of the German TV rights to ZDF and the French rights to ARTE. Both European broadcasters have boarded the film as coproducers. And DR TV has picked up the Danish broadcast rights.

Lanzmann’s film has not aired on U.S. TV in over 25 years. The length of the landmark 1985 documentary in part explains that absence.

“I’ve never really agreed with criticisms that Shoah is too long. [Lanzmann] shot 225 hours of material. He only used 5%. It’s difficult to show on TV and difficult to show at festivals,” Benzine said.

The film marks the directorial debut for Benzine, who wrote, co-produced and directed Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah. He also negotiated the U.S., German, French and Danish TV deals with co-producer Warner.

Future sales will be handled by Philippa Kowarsky of Israel-based Cinephil, with Israeli and Canadian TV deals already in the works.