Documentaries: Genre’s New Sexiness and Commercial Appeal

The success of American documentaries over the past few years has prompted critics to herald the renaissance of a vibrantly innovative non-fiction cinema. When a political documentary like Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” grosses over $120 million domestically, and also plays well in foreign markets, you know that the American documentary has arrived. Indeed, 2004 should be declared the Year of the American Documentary.

Is the Year of the Docu a passing fad

I hope not. There are indications that the resurgence of the non-fiction film as a commercially viable form is a reflection of some profound changes in the film industry. That said, the new interest in docus didn’t happen overnight. Rather, it evolved gradually over the past decade, evident in the critical and commercial success of such seminal works as “Roger and Me,” “Paris Is Burning,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Crumb,” and “Bowling for Columbine.”

The Rising Prestige of Docus
Once relegated to public broadcasting, cable channels, and regional independent festivals, the nonfiction genre is increasingly viewed as popular entertainment worthy of multiplexes showing and full admission prices. Though most docus still face an uphill battle, Hollywood’s bastard children are finally getting the recognition they deserve. One measure for the new cache is the willingness of both established and new directors to spend long, hard years on their works. A growing number of Hollywood’s key players, such as Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Oliver Stone, and James Cameron, better known for their features, have contributed to the genre with personal, often idiosyncratic docus that have elevated the entire form.

Michael Moore’s latest docus, “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” received their world premieres in Cannes in the main competition, and both won prestigious awards: the former a special citation; the latter, the Palme d’Or itself. Thriving on controversy, Moore is a media personality that gives the genre further legitimacy and prestige. His decision to take “Fahrenheit 9/11” out of the running for the Documentary Oscar, instead focusing on wining the top prize, Best Picture Oscar, will draw further attention to the docu genre, particularly if he succeeds.

Celeb documentarians like Michael Moore and Errol Morris (who made this year’s Oscar-winning “The Fog of War”) continue to feed the media frenzy. However, the new docu cinema doesn’t depend on a few celebs anymore, and it doesn’t exist in a void. The form benefits from the operation of artistic, economic, political, technological, organizational, and demographic forces, whose cumulative effects have facilitated the making and selling of the new docus.

The Need for Self-Expression
The most important force driving the docu cinema is the need of young filmmakers who are outsiders (ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians) to express themselves politically and artistically. Aimed to create different kinds of films, these artists challenge the status quo with visions and ideas long suppressed or ignored by the more conservative mainstream cinema. It’s always been easier for women (who should be considered minority as far as cultural production is concerned) to break into docu than feature filmmaking. Broadening the definition of what constitutes a docu has allowed for more personal works, with subjective attitudes and advocacy that’s partisan and doesn’t pretend to be balanced or objective. The new docus reflect their filmmakers’ singular vision; they are decidedly not the product of studio committee-made pictures. Their feisty guerrilla approach is as much an ideological state of mind as a practical modus operandi.

Hollywood, TV, and the Docu Milieu
The emergence of a new cinematic force is not a coincidence. Promising directors come and go in cycles, and dominant entertainment (both film and TV) sets the contexts in which those cycles occur. The recent prominence of docus is at least partly related to Hollywood’s abandonment of the politically provocative, issue-oriented, social-problems films, and the industry’s near-total embracement of its most loyal viewers, teenagers. In contrast, the new docus benefit from the buzz created by Reality TV, with shows ranging from “The “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” to “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

Politics at the Center
While American docus have always embraced a wide range of topics, the new cycle seems to be more overtly political. Many of the new films express and are inspired by the current mind set, a combined result of the 9/11 terrorists attacks, the Iraq War, and the upcoming presidential elections. New docus, such as Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar’s “The Corporation” and Harry Thomason’s “The Hunting of the President,” a look at the campaign to discredit the Clintons, appeal to mature audiences seeking more in-depth coverage than sound bites, more complex version of reality than Headline or Evening News.

Increased Opportunities for Docus
New video and digital technologies have proved to be a major factor. Digital camera, tailored-made a genre that relies on direct access and spontaneity, has made it easier and cheaper to shoot and do editing. DVD, a format popular with younger moviegoers, has the further allure of supplementary and special features in expanded editions of docus that have had successful theatrical runs.

At present, it’s easier to secure financing for documentary filmmaking than ever before. There’s increased capital for non-fiction fare on both the domestic and foreign fronts. The greater demand for visual media, driven by the new DVD market plays an important role as well. The rapidly expanding DVD industry has changed the very definition of home entertainment. Therere also greater opportunities for these docus to be seen theatrically and in ancillary markets (TV, video, and DVD), cable channels, and film festivals.

Premium cable channels like Bravo, the Independent Film Channel, and Sundance, have become major forces for buying and showing docus. The Sundance Channel, a long time supporter of the genre, aired more than 150 docus last year. Even bigger in terms of broadcasting is HBO, which was involved in several of the Oscar-nominated docus last year. PBS, a vet supporter of docus, partly funded “The Weather Underground,” a 2003 Oscar nominee. Sony Pictures Classic (SPC) invested $1 million in “The Fog of War” to improve its technical quality and production values, and the results show. Other Cable outlets such as the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Lifetime, the History Channel, are key buyers of docus aimed at their more specialized audiences.

Supportive Audiences
One of the most important factors for the evolution of a lively docu cinema is the growing supportive audience. The baby-boom generation, which has more sophisticated taste, more disposable time, and more money to spend on visual entertainment, provides indispensable backing for the new docus. The core audience for docus may be small in absolute terms, but it’s loyal and most appreciative. Docus are directed at specific sectors–niche audience–of the increasingly fragmented market. The typical public for docus consists of college students, discriminating viewers who seek provocative entertainment, and informed viewers with sharper sensibility and greater awareness of both filmic and non-filmic events.

The Decline of Foreign-Language Films
The declining popularity of foreign-language films has contributed to the increased success of all American indies, features and documentaries. Which came first: the decline of foreign cinemas, or the shrinking market for foreign films No matter, indie filmmakers have captured some of the art-house audiences of two decades ago, appealing to those viewers who used to attend regularly the new works of Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard, and Kurosawa.
The Proliferation of Film schools

Film schools, which have sprung up all over the country, produce year after year ambitious filmmakers eager to take advantage of the new opportunities. Perceiving movies as the prime medium of their generation, most of these young directors channel their energies into features, but there’s still a substantial group that goes into the docu genre.

The Sundance Film Festival
The Sundance Festival is the premiere showcase for new American indies. Celebrating new talent, Sundance has become a Mecca for all aspiring directors, fiction as well as non-fiction. Under the inspirational leadership of Robert Redford, Sundance has adopted an egalitarian approach, screening the same number of films in both the Dramatic and Documentary competition, with each series having its own jury and awards. Along with Sundance, a growing number of festivals have taken a more active interest in non-fiction. Docus are now regularly shown in New York’s New Directors series in New York and all the regional festivals: San Francisco, Seattle, Palm Springs.

Organizational Support for Docus
The new docu cinema is very much a grass-roots movement, supported by an extensive network of organizations. While funding remains a pervasive problem, guerrilla filmmakers on both coasts draw on the Independent Feature Project (IFP and IFP/West), the Association of Video and Filmmakers (AVF), the Black Filmmakers Foundation, and other organizations. Non-fiction films are greatly aided by the International Documentary Association, a non-profit organization established in 1982 to promote nonfiction film and support the efforts of documentary filmmakers around the world. The association publishes its own magazine, “International Documentary,” and has its own annual awards.

The Theatrical Front
Docus are easier to market and display. Not every documentary does business, but those of a certain quality can break out in a way they couldn’t have before. Technological changes have made it possible to reach larger target audiences, prime among which is the Internet and its various websites devoted to documentaries. Docu distributors spend more money on campaigns, VIP screenings followed by Q&A, and full-page ads. This year, at any given week, about a dozen docus are playing in hundred of locations across the country.

The docu cause is served by the growth of art houses geared more toward older audiences. The proliferation of multiplexes does away with the need to fill big movie houses. The number of screens, estimated at over 30,000, has increased substantially over the past five years. Many of these houses are smaller, accommodating no more than 100 to 200 seats, which may be more suitable to watching docus.

The Oscar Award
In 2001, a major event occurred for documentarians: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, best known for its Oscar Awards, created the Documentary Branch, which now consists of over 130 members, all professionals. New Oscar regulations have changed the selection process. The docu selection committee used to consist of volunteers from each of the Academy’s branches who had to see many films. In contrast, the Documentary Branch consists only of documentarians that view a smaller number of films. Since a larger group of pros makes the initial selections, the chosen docus reflect wide-ranging tastes and broader geographical and cultural diversity. The visibility of all docus was enhanced by this year’s Oscar race. The controversy fueled by the Oscar-nominated “Capturing the Friedmans,” about convicted child molesters father and son, Arnold and Jesse Friedman, called attention to the “factual” elements of this as well as other works. Broad commercial success, which in the past was believed to have worked against the Oscar chances of “Hoop Dreams” and “Crumb,” no longer does. Last year, most of the nominees had extended theatrical runs that exceeded eligibility rules.

Commercial Success
It’s no longer a secret: There’s money to be made out of good, provocative docus. The box-office success of “Roger and Me,” “Hoop Dreams,” and “Crumb,” a decade ago, proved the commercial viability of American docus. Moore’s 2002 Oscar-winner, “Bowling for Columbine,” was a breakthrough film that grossed a record-setting $21.6 million, breaking down old barriers and stigmas held by distributors and viewers. Cashing in on the media blitz accorded to all Oscar-nominated films, three of the five Oscar contenders performed extremely well at the box-office: The winner, “The Fog of War” grossed $4.2 million; “Capturing the Friedmans” $3.1 million, and “My Architect” $2.7 million.

I have no doubts that after the Toronto Festival, which showcased the premieres of many new docus, you will see at least a dozen exciting docus in a neighborhood theater near you.