PARK CITY 2001: Where Every Doc Has Its Day
by Sarah Keenlyside
Nicole Guillemet, Vice-President of the Sundance Institute and Co-Director of the festival.
Photo: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com
(indieWIRE/01.21.01) –If there’s one thing I’ve learned from covering the world of documentaries for the last two years it’s that docs are rarely front page news. Whether it’s because there are no big name stars parading about in low-cut Versace gowns, or because there are very few M&A dollars risked to promote them (when was the last time you saw a theatrical trailer on TV for a documentary?), docs traditionally take second stage (or screen) to fiction features.
The Sundance Film Festival has tried to change that. Since its inception, Sundance has attempted to divide its attentions fair and square between non-fiction films in competition and their dramatic counterparts. As a result, the festival has become an annual platform enabling documentary makers to network, attract critical attention, open doors to theatrical distribution, and in some cases promote an upcoming broadcast date.
“Every documentary filmmaker deeply wishes that their film will get selected [by Sundance],” admits veteran doc-maker Susan Froemke of New York’s Maysles Films. Froemke’s latest film, “LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton” (directed by Froemke, Deborah Dickson and Albert Maysles), which delves into the causes and effects of poverty and illiteracy in a Mississippi community, will premiere at this year’s festival along with 15 other titles in the Documentary Competition. “There are very few avenues for documentaries to be seen and promoted and Sundance is the one that’s got the most clout and power behind it,” she adds, noting that at events like the Academy Awards, for example, documentaries tend to be treated like “the poor third cousin at the wedding, seated out by the potted palms.”
Pat Mitchell, PBS president, speaking at Sundance’s House of Docs
Photo: Brendan Colthurst
One has only to speak to festival co-director Nicole Guillemet to see how committed Sundance really is to documentary film. “We have always treated the documentary exactly the same way as the fiction film at the festival,” says Guillemet. “There have always been the same number of films, two separate juries and exactly the same treatment in terms of the filmmakers.” But, she explains, a few years ago it became painfully evident to her that as the festival atmosphere was evolving into an increasingly frenzied fiction film marketplace, docs and doc-makers were being muscled out of the limelight. “Even though every year we would hear people raving about the quality of the documentary films at the festival, what we would read in the press was about such and such a film sold for $12 million etc. . . . Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in,” continues Guillemet, “it’s all about box office and numbers.”
A plan to remedy the situation was set in motion three years ago when the festival decided to take a more “proactive approach” to supporting and promoting non-fiction film. Since then, the Sundance Institute introduced a year-round program to cultivate documentary filmmaking talent, and the festival launched the “House of Docs” sidebar at the 2000 event.
“In order to start anything you need to create a sense of community,” says Guillemet who created the House of Docs to provide a place for the documentary community to meet, learn and work with each other, as well as connect with the press. Set in an informal, comfortable space, separate but not isolated from the festival environment, the House draws its energy from the participants themselves, providing content for the scheduled roundtable and panel discussions. Participants last year included an array of producers and directors (both with films in the festival and without), as well as key doc distributors, funders, and broadcasters. These included current PBS president Pat Mitchell (then of CNN Productions), Steve Rothenberg, president of Artisan Entertainment and Soros Documentary Fund director Diane Weyerman, among others. Many of last year’s filmmaker delegates expressed amazement over the accessibility and availability of top doc decision makers like these, the result no doubt of the House’s casual, friendly atmosphere.
Having successfully passed the test of its first year, the House has since been eagerly adopted by the Sundance doc community as an important tool for working the festival. “Thank God – and Nicole – it exists,” says Udy Epstein, a principal at L.A.-based distrib. Seventh Art Releasing. “The fact that it’s coming back, bigger and better — more people, more participants — that tops my expectations.”
This year’s ten-day slate includes the “Reel Gem and Coffee” series (morning doc screenings selected by invited guest advisors), “One On-Ones” (meetings between filmmakers and experienced industry advisors), a works-in-progress lab for invited projects, and roundtable discussions on pertinent doc issues, such as the challenges of theatrical distribution, the creative process, and navigating the broadcast arena. For Epstein, this kind of support can only benefit the industry. “The doc community is a small, fractured community, and for a while it’s been very tough. The economics of it are tough, so if there’s a way of making things a little easier by getting some sort of validation by the Sundance brand, the better. And that’s exactly what’s happening.”
Filmmaker Mark Lewis of L.A.’s Mark Lewis Radio Pictures agrees. “Sundance is very supportive of docs, and so they should be, because what you hear coming out of Sundance, year after year, is that the documentaries always provide the strongest programs at the festival. Today, a reviewer for the L.A. Times was talking about Sundance saying just that.” Lewis, whose film “The Natural History of the Chicken” will make its U.S. debut in this year’s Documentary Competition, is optimistic about the future of the Form. “I think it’s time for documentaries, I really do,” he enthuses. “I think there’s a renewed interest in docs — obviously from Sundance, and then the Sundance Institute, as well as the AFI‘s documentary festival and an new theater in Washington. I just think that filmmaking and film-watching go through cycles and through different phases. I think more good documentaries will get theatrical release and will find an audience.”
[Sarah Keenlyside is a devoted admirer of the documentary form as well as a freelance writer living in Vancouver, B.C.]