Wall Street Journal: Stuck in the Bullpen


By Rachel Dodes

On Monday night, when filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg watched New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey from the stands at Citi Field, they had special reason to root for him.

Just three days before, the directing duo had signed a distribution deal for their latest documentary, "Knuckleball!" Screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, it would now be coming to movie and TV screens.

That evening, Mr. Dickey threw his second consecutive one-hitter, a feat unachieved for nearly a quarter-century. The little-known knuckleballer was already gaining notice for a spectacular season—leading the league in wins, earned-run average and strikeouts. Now he was going viral.

He made newspaper headlines and TV highlights. The hashtag #Dickey emerged as a trending topic on Twitter, Google searches for his name increased by 5,000%, and his recent memoir, "Wherever I Wind Up," vaulted to No. 1 among all sports books on Amazon.

"We are racing to keep up with his amazing year," says Ms. Stern.

Yet they can't take full advantage: The film won't be available for wide audiences until September. Technology is supposed to embrace many platforms, move information instantaneously, empower creativity. But getting a movie out there can still seem like an antiquated process.

Filmed last year, "Knuckleball!" focuses on Mr. Dickey and former Red Sox stalwart Tim Wakefield, who retired in February, making the Mets pitcher the last remaining knuckleballer in Major League Baseball. Practitioners throw a quirky pitch of unpredictable trajectory, requiring "the fingertips of a safecracker and the mind of a Zen Buddhist," says former pitcher Jim Bouton in the film. Its equally quirky subculture has included Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough and the late Hoyt Wilhelm.

The movie is now slated for a simultaneous release in select theaters and via on-demand services at the end of September, as the season ends and the playoffs are set to begin, when the Mets may or may not still be contending. The distributor, New York-based FilmBuff, which specializes in VOD releases, hasn't yet finalized the date with broadband and cable providers.

"We are moving with our partners to say, 'This story is really hot—let's get this movie into preorders,' so at least we can drive people to where the film is available," which could be an online service like Amazon or iTunes, says Janet Brown, FilmBuff's chief executive.

Can't they get the movie out sooner? Even though the release is going to be mainly on-demand, with a shorter-than-usual lead time, getting on several cable companies' schedules simultaneously and encoding the film takes time. Releasing the movie online has political dangers, risking the ire of cable operators.

"We have to make it available everywhere at the same time on the same day, or people get angry," says Ms. Brown.

The filmmakers say that they had been in talks with FilmBuff well before Dickey mania exploded. Now, with a deal in place, the pitching heats up: FilmBuff has been emailing press clips to exhibitors this week to urge the widest possible theatrical release in baseball-loving cities such as New York, Boston and St. Louis. A Facebook page is also filled with sports stories and Mets-fan chat.

"Usually you have time to breathe—write a distribution plan, a marketing plan—but I have no time," says marketing director Julie La'Bassiere. She is planning an event in July that may involve an online or in-theater sneak preview of the movie, as well as a promo to coincide with the All-Star game on July 10. (Mr. Dickey may well have the honor of starting for the National League.) The distributor is planning to screen the film for fans at venues near Citi Field and Fenway Park closer to the release date.

When the filmmakers were first approached by producers to direct "Knuckleball!," they thought the idea was "out of left field," recalls Ms. Stern. But the directors, known for their documentaries about eclectic topics—from a Burmese dissident to Joan Rivers—were moved by the perseverence of the athletes.

"What is so miraculous about this is that it was a peculiar sports story last year—a look at an outlier pursuit of a craft that may be dying," says Ms. Sundberg. "Then, this year, it's the hottest thing in baseball."