By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire May 11, 2011 at 6:11AM
At this year's Sundance Film Festival, Oprah Winfrey made a surprise appearance with Rosie O'Donnell, the Oprah Doc Club curator, to announce that it was her intention to do for documentaries what she did for books. Last night, the Oprah Winfrey Network debuted the first in their (for now) monthly series of documentaries in the Oprah Doc Club, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's "Becoming Chaz."
As many of the big TV players are reticent to enter the doc business, OWN's foray into the doc world is already news for the doc world. indieWIRE's here to let you know how their first attempt at their big promise went:
What's the doc club? Shortly after the launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network was announced, they began acquiring documentaries. With a mix of co-productions (that are produced are voiced by the likes of Julia Roberts, Gabriel Byrne, and Forest Whitaker) and acquisitions, the doc club is currently set to release a film a month. The OWN team has been working with film industry players like ro*co films to help curate and ensure the doc club's success.
What's the film? "Becoming Chaz" chronicles the transition of Chaz (formerly Chastity) Bono, son of Sonny and Cher, from female to male. The filmmakers follow Chaz in his everyday life as he goes through the medical and social transition into his new name, his new body. It also includes an earnest interview with Cher, in which she admits how difficult Chaz's transition has been for her. The film was picked up by OWN preceding its debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
The viewing experience: OWN, which has been actively using Twitter to promote discussion on all of its shows, encouraged viewers to tweet back to Chaz and Rosie with #becomingchaz hash tags. Rosie updated viewers with her children's perspective on the show; Chaz answered viewers' questions up-to-the-minute.
The aftershow: After the screening, Rosie showed off her hosting chops at an hour long talkback, with questions for Chaz, his girlfriend, and the filmmakers, from the audience, who saw the before the show was taped, and from telephone callers.
Promotion? Running up to the screening, Chaz did interviews (including a lengthy interview with ABC's Cynthia McFadden and a spot on Oprah's couch).
What does it mean? The first doc out of the gates benefited from OWN and Rosie's personal approach to docs. The talkback, promos, and live tweets focused on the doc's subjects. For personality- and issue-driven docs, it looks like OWN won't have to tweak much to make the club's mandate, to do for docs what Oprah did for books, possible. With the network's recent shake-up at the top, it's impossible to say where the doc club will go from here.
What's up next? June's film is "Sons of Perdition," the profile of children who flee Warren Jeffs's Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints compound; July's is "Serving Life," a Forest Whitaker-voiced OWN co-production that chronicles a hospice program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary; and "Life 2.0," the probing doc about people who live, work, and find love on Second Life, will premiere in August.