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Dawn of the Doc

Dawn of the Doc

Articles - Directing

Winged Migration (2003)

Five years ago,
I was standing on line at a Sundance documentary screening,” recalls
Docurama co-owner Steve Savage. “The movie was sold out, and
that was amazing to me at the time—but not only that, people
were being turned away and were disappointed. That was the inspiration
for Docurama.”

What a difference five years makes. Half a
decade ago, forming the only distribution company exclusively
dedicated to documentaries for the home video market might have
seemed a leap in the dark—but
not today. This year’s explosion of documentaries at Sundance proved
what last year’s box office had already revealed: Namely, that
the successes of films like Spellbound, Capturing the
and Winged Migration were no fluke. The industry
has begun to take notice. “When we started this thing,” laughs
Savage, “documentaries were the D word. You’d never use ‘documentary’
on a box if you were bringing it to the marketplace.

Now, the D word has become the B word—buzzworthy.
Docs landing million-dollar deals at Sundance? Who would have
thought. (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Metallica: Some Kind of Monster picked
up a $3 million advance just for video rights; Morgan Spurlock
says the money he’s getting for Super Size Me! has “exceeded
all my expectations.”) Audiences have clearly re-trained their
thinking when it comes to movies, and buyers are responding. Even
sensitive subject matter isn’t keeping people away, says Eamonn
Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which released last year’s
breakout hit Capturing the Friedmans.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

“I thought it would perform on some level,” he
says of Friedmans.
What he didn’t expect was a $3 million-plus gross (and counting)
on a film about accused child molesters on Long Island. “It became
the cocktail party movie of [last] summer,” he says. “That drove
so much of the business.”

So what has changed? Has the quality documentary
become the new independent film? The devil is in the details.
Insiders point to various reasons, starting with the bankruptcy
in traditional fictional storytelling in Hollywood. They note
that creativity in fiction films has been exchanged for assured
tentpole blockbuster success. “In
the last 10 or 15 years, there’s been a real vacuum in dramatic
storytelling,” says George Hickenlooper, director of Mayor of
the Sunset
Strip. “Hollywood is selling the big
spectacle, or ironic postmodern movies with nudge, nudge, wink,
wink violence. Audiences haven’t been able to relate to these characters
on visceral, emotional levels.”

Audiences now know what to expect from movies,
and so find themselves less entertained. “People want something with a tinge of unpredictability
to it,” explains Savage. “The old Hollywood conceits keep recycling
the same stories over and over again.”

Deriving narrative from real life, documentaries
escape the pat, easy endings because, of course, real life rarely
has them. That’s why they’re called “Hollywood endings.” “To the extent that I know
what the story is, it gets far less interesting to me,” explains
Errol Morris, who has been making documentaries since 1978’s Gates
of Heaven
, and has always found theatrical distribution for
his films. (He scored his first Oscar nod this year with Fog
of War
—and won.) “There is that element of the unpredictable,
the unexpected in almost every film I’ve made. Capturing the complexity
of the real world can be very powerful and dramatic.”

Winged Migration, Capturing the
and Spellbound made 2003 a banner year
for nonfiction moviemaking, a trend that has benefited Docurama’s
home video market.

One of Morris’ early successes, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line,
redefined the visual language of docs by introducing reenactments
and dramatic presentations of dry material such as court documents. “The
film was considered heretical because of reenacted material,” remembers
Morris. Yet nonfiction television and many recent films have now
made that language commonplace. Conversely, documentaries have
begun borrowing the syntax of Hollywood films to help create narrative,
says Docurama’s Savage, pointing to this year’s Touching the
. His co-owner, partner Susan Margolis, adds that American
was an “interesting mix of documentary, fiction and

The lines haven’t just been blurring on the theatrical screens.
Though filmmakers may cringe at the admission, audience addiction
to reality shows has had an enormous effect on the success of
long-form documentaries. Though it is a chicken-or-egg proposition—are docs
popular because of reality shows, or vice-versa—the success of both is undoubtedly

“Reality television is actually pretty constructed TV,” notes
Ondi Timoner, director and producer of the film DiG! “But
I think it’s opened people’s minds—and the industry’s mind—to the
idea that real life is perhaps stranger than fiction.”

“Capturing the complexity of the real
world can be very powerful and dramatic.”
—Errol Morris

Technology also can’t be underestimated: Documentaries
are easier to make than ever, thanks to lower-priced DV cameras
and home computers which can now serve as editing systems. “I was filming with spy
cameras in 1995, when they were like $2,500. Now you can get them
for $50 on the Internet,” notes Timoner.

Spurlock agrees. “Anybody can get a camera
now; anyone can edit a film. You don’t even need a lot of money,
you just need time and sweat equity.”

Docs also have the advantage of audience acceptance when it comes
to rougher edges, notes Mark Urman, head of distribution for ThinkFilm,
which released Spellbound. “The human eye is now trained
to redefine what a cinema image can be,” he explains. “It’s harder
for people to accept the digital image and brackish lighting and
herky-jerky camera movement in a fiction film, but they will from
a documentary. I’ve seen [documentaries] that work enormously well,
that were made with the sort of camera you’d give to a 12-year
old and a lavalier mic.”

Still, notes Spellbound producer Jeff
Blitz, “I think the
success of documentaries recently has had less to do with qualitative
shifts in the making of docs or audience appetites and more to
do with the fact that distributors are now willing to spend real
marketing money to let audiences know how terrific these films

Lars Ulrich takes center stage in Metallica:
Some Kind of Monster

He’s in good company with Urman, who believes
docs are the best buys out there—but who insists ThinkFilm has no plans to go exclusively
into the doc distribution business. “At this moment in time, [docs]
are the best projects that present themselves. They seem to be
the most sellable, have the most ancillary prospects, they’re most
critically acclaimed and present the optimal combination of prestige,
individuality and comfort for us.” Docurama’s Savage, on the other
hand, admits they might consider expansion into theatrical distribution: “There’s
such fire in the box office that it means that may be an area that’s
logical for us to migrate toward.”

There are now more outlets for docs than ever
before. PBS is no longer a moviemaker’s likeliest territory—although
even PBS might find a revitalization if recent plans by Comcast
to launch digital video-on-demand channels for public TV fare
go through.

HBO has long financed and aired documentaries,
notes VP of programming, Nancy Abraham. “From the very beginning
[of the network], HBO has been commissioning, financing and producing
documentaries. We didn’t want to ignore projects just because
they hadn’t originated with us. If they are great films, or we
feel they have a place on the network, then we are happy to get

Kevin MacDonald directs Touching the Void (2003)

Additionally, The Sundance Channel airs docs
frequently, devoting a 12-hour period once a week to airing nothing
but. “We wanted
to send a message to the documentary community that we have been
here and continue to be here and are committed to documentaries
that don’t have a home,” explains Paola Fuchero, senior VP of film
programming. Plans for an all-doc Sundance Channel have been in
the works since 2002, but launching, she says, has been problematic.

In the meantime, other outlets have presented themselves. Netflix
has partnered with Docurama’s New Video to identify films which
might not get distribution otherwise, and makes them available
to their subscriber base. Titles such as Davis Guggenheim’s The
First Year
and Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco’s Daughter
from Danang
have all come out on Netflix First, which takes
on the expenses of creating and authoring the DVDs, then returns
the digital files to the filmmaker. “What we get out of it is that
our customers value discovery,” explains Ted Sarandos, chief content
officer for Netflix, which can target movies to a very specific
audience. “I can identify at least 25,000 people in our database
who’d want to see Daughter From Danang,” he notes.

All of which means it’s a new world for the
documentary moviemaker—and
those who want to capitalize on the phenomenon. “There will be
permanent implications here,” says Nancy Buirski, founder and executive
director for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. “Filmmakers
are learning to make documentaries with a more narrative style,
and they’re beginning to understand what makes a documentary compelling
to a mainstream audience.”

“At this point in time, docs are the
best projects that present themselves.”
—Mark Urman

And yet, notes Blitz, “Real filmmakers aren’t
influenced much by trends or fads. The mainstreaming of docs
won’t shift one bit the kind of movie I aspire to make.”

With increased attention will likely
come greater budgets and higher expenses for distributors, but
more money won’t spoil filmmakers, says Berlinger. “Documentaries have always been the
bastard child of the movie industry. Now we’re starting to get
a little respect. And if a documentary can make $50 million, that
would be a positive development.” He notes that with indie films
now costing $30 to $40 million, a vacuum has been pleasantly opened. “If
the Miramaxing of documentaries were to happen, it could only be
a good situation. That means more nonfiction product would come
into the theaters.”

There are elements of the increased attention
that worry some—Buirski
frets that “documentary filmmakers have always been driven by the
story they need to tell, not the marketplace. Some of them are
going to be a little bit torn now by the need to satisfy marketplace
demands, and I hope it’s not going to affect their ability to tell
the story they want to tell.”

That kind of concern, however, is likely a
long way down the road. And moviemakers are still battling some
of the same concerns they always have. “Even the now legendary Michael Moore will still tell
you that every film is a struggle to get funded; every film is
a struggle to get distributed. They live very modest existences,” says
Sundance’s Fuchero. (She’s right—Oscar nom or not, Morris took
time off from a job filming a commercial to speak to MM.) “A
modicum of perspective is always a good thing.”

Urman believes that this is no passing fancy
in filmgoers’ taste. “There’s
no turning back. Hollywood can give us romantic comedies, they
can give us thrillers, they can give us family dramas, but they
just can’t give it as well, as edgily or as challengingly as documentaries
can.” MM

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