Alex Gibney on His Paul Simon Film and the Future of Doc Distribution: ‘It Would Be Grim If There Was Just One or Two Streamers and Nothing Else’

In his latest documentary “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon,” Alex Gibney explores the singer-songwriter’s six-decade career. The Oscar winning director also captures Simon creating his latest album, “Seven Psalms,” which he made while losing hearing in his left ear. Although Gibney is mostly recognized for his rigorously researched investigative exposes (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”), he is also skilled in creating portraits of cultural icons like Simon. In the 209-minute docu Gibney relies on Simon as well as signifigant figures in his life including wife Edie Brickell, Lorne Michaels and Art Garfunkel, who can be heard via archival footage, to tell his story.

In 2019 Gibney premiered his Mikhail Khodorkovsky documentary “Citizen K” at TIFF. “In Restless Dreams” will debut at TIFF on Sept. 10. Gibney is seeking distribution for the film.

Did you have final cut on this docu?

Yes. That was the arrangement we made going into it. I felt good about that. Paul was generous enough to give me a lot of access, particularly to his creative process. But at the end of the day, the final shape of the film was my call.

Celebrity profile docs are all the rage today. How did you feel about jumping on that bandwagon?

When it comes to celebrity profiles, there’s a difference between when the filmmaker has control and when the celebrity does. If the celebrity has control, then celebrity profile is one way of calling it. You could also call it a commercial. For every film that I do, I have to find something in the story that’s compelling as a story and leads you deeper, rather than it just being a presentation of clips of a performer. That feels more like a commercial.

Docus about famous musicians are complicated for many reasons, one being all of the music rights involved. What was that process like for you on this doc?

It was complicated. Paul controls all his publishing, or did. He has since sold it. (Simon sold his publishing catalog to Sony Music Publishing in 2021 and sold a share in his royalties to BMG in 2023). We had a deal in place, and that seemed fair enough. In other words, as part of the arrangement, the project agreed to pay a certain amount of dough for licensing his music. So that’s how we got it done, and we agreed on that deal in advance (of production starting).

The docu features Simon performing, so is it fair to assume you are seeking a theatrical deal?

We are but with some consciousness. I mean, this is a long film, so we are looking for a theatrical partner who is investing in a kind of series of limited theatrical screenings, where as an event, you would see this. But then, many other people would ultimately see it in some other form digitally. We are really into (a theatrical release) because this film has some huge concert sequences, for example, which, if you are in a theater, it’s like being at a concert.

As the president of Jigsaw Pictures, where do you see the doc marketplace heading?

I’m trying to work with a bunch of other filmmakers to create new mechanisms for distributing films that may be complementary to the established modes. Some of them may just be ways to do it on your own, which I think would be a good thing. But it’s interesting — there are a number of comedians who have email lists for their fans and they end up making comedy specials. Then they release them on their own websites and get the word out, and they sell those specials as sort of download-to-own opportunities to their fans. They make a lot of money doing that. It also means that if you’re a comedian who does edgy material, you don’t have to conform to the censorious expectations of a streamer. You can just put it up on your site, and the fans will come to you. I think variations of that, possibly mixed in with theatrical and other releases, may pave the way for the future. It would be grim if there was just one or two streamers and nothing else. That would be a terrible landscape for our art.

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