FESTIVALS: Post-Sundance 2001; Docs Still Face Financing and Distribution Challenges
by Sarah Keenlyside
(indieWIRE/ 02.08.01) — “Rarely do we get to do exactly the film we want,” admitted documentary filmmaker Chris Hegedus to a group of her peers at House of Docs during the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival — an event that’s sure to become the annual pow wow for American documentarians to air out their frustrations and passions about non-fiction filmmaking. Hegedus was surrounded by some of the most influential voices in American documentary cinema — William Greaves (“Ali, The Fighter“), Albert Maysles and Susan Froemke (“Grey Gardens“) as well as Hegedus’ own long-time partner D.A. Pennebaker (“The War Room“) — who all nodded in agreement.
It’s hard to believe that even documentary veterans must still struggle to make the films they feel compelled to create. But the reality that emerged after discussions at Sundance 2001 is that the broadcasting arena has become the primary exhibition space — and thus funding source — for documentary films, and that many docmakers are finding themselves having to cater to the desires of broadcasters in order to survive.
It can be especially difficult to muster support for so-called “important” projects because most broadcasters are unwilling to risk the necessary dollars to develop them. Not only are these films thought to be a tough sell to viewers, they can also end in disaster if real life doesn’t play out the way the filmmaker had hoped it would. (Filmmaker Jon Else commented during one discussion that it’s easier to get money for a doc about a dead person, because you already know how the film will end.)
As a result, complicated, but less risky co-productions have become very common in documentary financing, where multiple broadcasters will invest small amounts of money to help piece together the budget for a film — and unfortunately, selling off available rights early on and limiting long-term sales potential.
In light of these kinds of issues, the overwhelming sentiment that floated around Sundance’s House of Docs discussion table is that it’s a buyer’s market out there and docmakers need to think creatively and strategically about approaching the marketplace with their work.
Some filmmakers offered their own solutions to the problem of raising funds:
Directors Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim “self financed” their film “Startup.com,” which played in the documentary competition.
Barbara Hammer explained that she has often relied on the goodwill of the filmmaking community who have donated their time and expertise to help realize her projects. (Each of Hammer’s ‘history trilogy’ films, including “History Lessons,” which played at Sundance 2001, cost around $20,000 to make, not including the in-kind support she received).
George Butler cast out the idea that the corporate sector is a potential source of funding. For his film “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition,” which screened in the documentary competition, Butler turned to investment banking firm Morgan Stanley to help make the film.
Stacy Peralta‘s Directing Jury Prize and Audience Award winner about the legendary skateboarding team, “Dogtown and the Z-Boys” was primarily financed by Vans, the skater-friendly shoe company.
But while alternative sources of funding can be found, broadcasters remain the major source for documentary funding. And while the broadcast landscape is rough, there are some exceptions.
Nary a single conversation at the House of Docs went by without some mention of HBO and their support for documentary. The broadcaster came to Sundance in support of five documentaries — three of which won recognition at the awards ceremony on January 28: Best Documentary nod for Kate Davis‘ tragic transgender love story “Southern Comfort,” Special Jury Prize for Edet Belzberg‘s “Children Underground,” and a cinematography award for the Maysles‘ and Froemke‘s “Lalee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton.”
Sheila Nevins, Executive Vice President of original programming at HBO explains that the broadcaster’s healthy relationship with non-fiction thrives on balance, “[The audience] probably wants “Taxicab Confessions,” “Autopsy,” “G-String Divas” and “Real Sex,” but they also watch some of the other documentaries,” she says. “Not in those great numbers — but it is a popular form of communication on HBO. I think that’s partly because we play sort of the high-brow, low-brow game — you never know what you’re going to get. You might be in the back of a taxicab or you might be nudging the world a little bit.”
Recognizing that low brow can mean high ratings, more than once did the words “reality television” creep into the dialogue — to the vexation of more than a few filmmakers in attendance at Sundance. While some suggested that the documentary community could learn a thing or two from the success of its evil twin, others recoiled at the comparison. Susan Froemke noted: “We don’t want to use the word ‘reality’ [in terms of our work] and yet, reality is what’s getting all the ratings.”
Perhaps, then, it should come as no great surprise when theatrical distributor Artisan Entertainment (“Pi,” “The Blair Witch Project“) announced it had picked up filmmaker Billy Corben‘s hotly debated documentary “Raw Deal: A Question of Consent” late in the festival.
Using graphic video footage of the alleged rape of a stripper at a fraternity party, woven together with shoddily shot interviews and an overall sensational flare, the film has all the markings of a salacious reality special. “Raw Deal” seemed to awaken a range of emotions — from disgust to outrage — in some members of the documentary community attending the festival. But outside the moral debate, the question that inevitably creeps up is, “Will the film sell?” In the case of “Raw Deal,” Artisan will now have to see.
Sheila Nevins lends her thoughts: “I think that on some college circuits and small art theaters they could get people to see [“Raw Deal”], because people will talk about it. It doesn’t matter if you hate the film. If you’re talking about it, you bought a ticket.” She adds that as a potential buyer for the film, after seeing the movie, she “didn’t want to be any part of it.”
It’s nearly impossible to predict in advance which documentaries might break out in a theatrical release, which is one reason why so few are given a shot. In addition to “Raw Deal,” the only other doc to garner theatrical distribution thus far out of Sundance was “Go Tigers,” the “Hoop Dreams” meets high school football doc acquired by IFC Films. Artisan already had “Startup.com” going into the festival. And Doc winner “Southern Comfort” was already booked for a February theatrical run by New York’s Film Forum prior to Sundance, but it won’t see any more screen time until after it’s HBO broadcast this November — and even then, nothing is certain.
Theatrical distribution still remains the holy grail for many documentary filmmakers, driving some to self-distribute their films. All of this perplexes Nevins. “I’ve never really understood the economics of that, because there are very, very few documentaries that make it financially in theaters — but for some reason the allure of the big screen seems to be something that attracts — not all — but some documentary filmmakers.”
Sundance Festival co-director Geoff Gilmore offers a possible reason, posing the question to one roundtable group, “Does a theatrical release fuel visibility for a doc?” The consensus among the filmmakers was yes, it can raise awareness by attracting the attention of theatrical reviewers (who generally occupy space on page one in a publication) versus television reviewers (who land somewhere around page 13). With that kind of attention, a film can have a longer life — in theaters, TV and beyond.
Perhaps another reason is because the auteur-driven documentary tradition began in movie theaters — a point illuminated by Albert Maysles, who told indieWIRE that he and his brother David “were very active in getting our films into theaters because there was no HBO then.”
But no matter what the challenges facing documentary — financing, visibility, low ratings — Sundance’s docmakers expressed optimism about the future of the form, which D.A. Pennebaker believes has more longevity than star driven films (which fade very quickly). “I know that these films about a real place, in a real time, will last a long time,” he says.