Only a day after American citizens reflected upon the state of the nation by turning in ballots for midterm elections, a panel of eight filmmakers and industry members turned up at New York's IFC Center to discuss the present state of documentary cinema. The panel, titled "State of the Industry," was presented as part of DOC NYC, New York's Documentary Festival, which runs from November 3 – 9. The event gathered filmmakers Amir Bar-Lev ("My Kid Could Paint That"), Doug Block ("The Kids Grow Up"), Liz Garbus ("Shouting Fire"), and Gary Hustwit ("Helvetica") along with industry panelists Matt Dentler (Cinetic Rights Movement), Susan Margolin (Docurama/New Video), Jonathan Sehring (IFC Entertainment) and Molly Thompson (A&E Indie Films) for 90 minutes to discuss the present and future of documentary film production and distribution.
Bar-Lev opened by reflecting on what he sees as one of the "Better years in terms of box office that has come around for quite a while," touching upon the economic resurgence of recent documentary films in the American market. Block compounded the observation by referring to the quality of this output, dubbing it a "Golden Age" of documentary filmmaking.
His assessment, however, came with a reservation: with such a strong pool of documentary films available to audiences, it's easy for some great films to be overlooked and get lost in the shuffle. For Block, the problem has always been the same, "How do you stand out?" The "51 Birch Street" director stressed the importance of one's work being distinct in such a competitive market, dismissing what might initially appear as documentary's limitless mainstream potential as "An illusion created by a couple of films by Michael Moore and a penguin movie."
"We had that dream where we'd go to Sundance and Miramax or Sony Pictures would just swoop in and take [our films] off our hands," said Block about the ongoing challenge of securing distribution. "That dream is done."
While filmmaker Liz Garbus relegated the importance of securing theatrical release in terms of a case-by-case relevance, Jonathan Sehring from IFC Films proudly replied that his company always makes it a point to achieve commercial success during the theatrical run. Sehring complemented his assessment by citing the emerging role of VOD in distribution, using IFC’s “Art of the Steal” as a prime example, for it outperformed its theatrical release with the new home-viewing technology.
Hustwit recommended social networking as a good way to get an advantage in this competitive atmosphere. He cited his own Twitter account, boasting nearly 75, 000 followers, as an important means to keep a close relationship with his public. The "Helvetica" director sees Twitter as an opportunity for "Filmmakers to engage their audience while the film gets made and to maintain that audience through its release." Block, whose film "Home Page" documents the early rise of internet culture, remained cautious about the subject. Both he and Molly Thompson from A&E Indie Films saw social networking as a possible distraction during the development and creative phase of a project. Thompson's vision seems to be more democratic, calling for a wider, more universal appeal of documentaries rather than appealing to niche audiences – which she sees as a pitfall of social networking strategies.
The industry panelists echoed Thompson's sentiments to a certain extent. Cinetic’s Matt Dentler exhibited a pragmatic take on the issue, "If you make a good documentary about a popular subject – that’s going to be one of the keys to success," he said. "It’s harder for dark, bleak documentaries to find the same opportunities."
Most of the afternoon’s dialogue touched upon the filmmakers’ freedom and access to their work. Hustwit’s views placed him in one extreme of the conversation, advising burgeoning filmmakers to avoid signing any contracts. Garbus and Thomson were quick to qualify the "Helvetica" director’s claims.
"Sign something if it’s good," suggested Garbus.
"There is a lot to be said for signing contracts, because they’re followed by a check," added Thompson.
Hustwit, however, stood his ground and emphasized the importance of remaining independent.
"Anyone who can tell me where this industry will be five years from now is kidding themselves."
Five years might be a bit far down the line. But next year's potential panel could give a clearer idea on how much things have changed in 2011.