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Joe Berlinger on Michael Moore and The Changing Market for Documentaries

Joe Berlinger on Michael Moore and The Changing Market for Documentaries

Last week, Michael Moore presented the keynote address at the Toronto International Film Festival Doc Conference and, as always, he provoked some strong responses. In his speech, Moore shared his advice to documentary filmmakers, beginning with the notion that they shouldn’t be called documentarians at all. “We are not documentarians, we are filmmakers,” he told the crowd at the start of his 13-point manifesto. Indiewire reached out to a number of documentary filmmakers for their response to Moore’s “rules” and we published their thoughts here. Joe Berlinger had so much to say on the topic that we felt it merited its own story which you’ll find below in its unedited form:

READ MORE: Michael Moore’s 13 Rules for Making Documentary Films

Not calling ourselves “documentarians” is a very old argument that ignores the amazing expansion of the form and the pushing of boundaries that Michael himself was huge part of ushering in. When we launched “Brother’s Keeper” at Sundance in 1992, we made it part of our press strategy to call it a “nonfiction feature film” and to avoid the word “documentary” because of the “castor oil” baggage of the word — we certainly weren’t the first and obviously not the last to make a conscious effort to not only avoid the “D” word, but to make an issue of how we were different from traditional (i.e., “boring”) documentaries… that was 23 years ago.

But, since the late 1980’s through the 1990’s generally beginning with with “The Thin Blue Line” (by using highly stylized re-creations), “Roger & Me” (by using humor and making the filmmaker an on-screen personality) and “Paris is Burning” (taking us into a world documentaries didn’t normally dare to go) and throughout the 1990’s and beyond, there has been an amazing explosion in the volume and creativity of the form, pushing the documentary into new places of cinematic expression and techniques, from artfully shot re-creations, to using documentary not just to “educate,” but also ambiguous human character portraits to, yes, the modern day advocacy film.
(I think “Brother’s Keeper” was part of this movement that helped broaden the definition of what is a documentary and to make it engaging for a theatrical audience. “Brother’s Keeper,” which was an ambiguous human character portrait that tried to emulate the dramatic structure of fiction by focussing on a murder trial as it unfolded, grossed almost $2 million worldwide in 1992, when movie tickets were $5 and we did the distribution ourselves via self-distribution. We had to self-distribute because theatrical docs were still rare; after our success and films like “Roger & Me,” more and more docs started getting theatrical releases.)

READ MORE: Is Michael Moore Right About Documentary Filmmakers? Filmmakers Respond.

Since the early 1990’s, I have witnessed the pendulum of documentary popularity at the box office swing back and forth a number of times, as there have been several “golden age” of documentaries at the box office in the last 25 years. I don’t think there should be any one way, or any one motivation, to make a documentary and aiming for “popularity” in a traditional movie theater to me is an antiquated measure of success, especially in light of the new economics of the theatrical business.

Specifically, I don’t think documentaries are struggling at the box office because they do too much lecturing (although many do just that, which is indeed a problem.) There is a larger issue that has undermined the success of docs at the box office:    It has become harder for documentaries as a category to do anything close to the kind of business that Michael enjoyed because of changing audience tastes that are directly related to technology and economics, not because of the inferior quality of today’s documentaries.

READ MORE: Making a Living at Documentary Filmmaking is Harder Than Ever

Just as Hollywood and the independent sector of the narrative world is finding it harder and harder to make a business out of producing the kind of lower budget, edgier dramatic fare that Miramax and other once-indie distributors popularized in the 1990’s, documentaries at the box office are having a tougher time not because only bad films are being made, but because of the explosion of digital streaming technology and the overall economics of the theatrical business.
I am a perfect example: I love movies and I love the communal experience and got into this business wanting to make documentaries for theatrical audiences, but, even a filmmaker like myself who loves cinema, most often would rather sit in my living room with my high-end home viewing system and watch most films at home under my own terms. The choice of product through the many digital platforms at a click of the button and the quality of viewing experience right in my own little leather reclining chair is driving the theatrical business because this is how most Americans are consuming drama and docs… because of the cost of tickets and the easier choice of staying home, most people are electing to only go to movies for mega-budget, effects driven entertainment.

And so, in order to stave off this migration to home viewing, Hollywood is focusing on making big, tentpole event EFX driven entertainment, not smaller indies, and outfitting theaters with special seating and sound systems, and raising ticket prices. At the AMC theater on 84th Street in Manhattan, equipped with comfortable red leather reclining  chairs, today’s evening show of “Guardians of The Galaxy” costs $21.50 for an adult ticket and $18.50 for a kid’s ticket. A couple, therefore, needs to lay out  $43 plus a babysitter for this experience — as a result, smaller dramatic movies and documentaries are not fitting into the economic realities of what makes it to the theaters because people don’t want to lay out that kind of money for an experience they can replicate at home.

While there are exceptions to every rule, generally speaking, the big event action movie with special efx is the special exception that people are going out to the theater for. As a result, a lot of narrative drama is migrating to television series ( a new golden age of TV drama) and the vast majority of documentary funding comes from television or digital platforms like Netflix.
Even Michael’s work follows this pattern of decline — the phenomenal $119 million gross in 2004 for “Fahrenheit 9/11” was followed by “Sicko” in 2007 at $24 million and “Capitalism: A Love Story” “only” grossed $14 million in 2009, far, far less than “Fahrenheit 9/11” just 5 years before. Box Office Mojo estimates that the “Capitalism: A Love Story” gross translated into 1.9 million tickets — still an extremely impressive number for a documentary (sorry, I have to use that word), but not that impressive when compared to a good rating on HBO for a popular documentary, so why define success by theatrical ticket sales?

And “Capitalism: A Love Story” came out before the digital revolution of the last few years that is defining how people are consuming docs. I would venture to say that even if Michael Moore took on another important topic and followed his formula that has worked so well for him, we all might be surprised at how a new film from him film would fare in this brave new world of digital distribution. My own “Whitey Bulger” film, released by Magnolia and to be broadcast this week on CNN, did not fare well at the box office, but Magnolia released it day-and-date in theaters and digital platforms simultaneously, where the film has performed extraordinarily well on VOD and was the number one documentary on iTunes the first week of release, even as the theatrical numbers disappointed.
So, let’s not define documentary success by how many theater tickets we sell on a Friday evening as we compete with comic book heroes and inane sequels, because in order to compete with these kinds of film, by definition, documentary filmmakers will be forced to only use humor and entertainment and choose “popular subjects,” forcing all documentarians in the same creative and editorial box.

READ MORE: Here’s What We Learned at Joe Berlinger’s Master Class

The original “Paradise Lost” film had a very mediocre theatrical run but was, at the time of broadcast, the highest rated documentary on HBO in its day (its ratings record has since been eclipsed by others films since1996) — the film inspired a worldwide movement to free the West Memphis Three, and, after two more films in the series, the movement to free them succeeded because, in part, people were inspired by the film… which did not perform well at the box office. Imagine that, a series of documentaries that were considered very cinematic that actually directly led to the vacating of a death sentence and two life-without-parole-sentences, and there is not a single joke in the film and minimal onscreen presence of the filmmaker, and they did poorly at the box office, but were seen by many millions of people around the world.

And while I absolutely agree with Michael that there are certain age old principles regarding the art of storytelling that aspiring filmmakers should consider heeding (in their own way of course) that Michael includes in his manifesto, such as “don’t tell me things I already know” (I would just add, “unless you are doing it in a fresh and engaging way”) and “don’t talk down to or lecture the audience,” but exhorting filmmakers to exclusively aim for popularity, to use humor and to focus on “entertainment” (i.e., to pander to populism) for theatrical success runs the risk of killing off important social issue filmmaking; humor is not the only technique in the filmmakers arsenal and humor runs the risk of oversimplifying complex issues which in turns risks preaching to the converted instead of engaging people on the other side of the issue.

And in today’s world where serious journalism that is under attack, we need serious, social issue filmmaking more than ever.  Print journalism has been gutted and the corporate control of most networks has meant certain subjects are off limits out of fear of offending advertisers. So, most of the important social issue reporting is being done by independent documentarians who often take great risks to bring their stories to the screen. Putting yourself on camera and being funny is certainly one formula for moving audiences, and no one does it better than Michael, but it is far from the only technique, as not every filmmaker can or wants to be funny, and not every subject lends itself to humor. Rape in the military (“Invisible War”), for example, is not fertile ground for humor.

Let’s not define cinema by the screen size and how many people see it in a movie theater — this is the problem of the latest rules for documentary eligibility for the Academy awards, which favor better known films and filmmakers and discourages theaters from playing smaller, more social issue driven films, in my opinion. I agree we shouldn’t be lecturing but the word “entertain” scares me a little.

Good storytelling is paramount but humor and entertainment isn’t the answer for everyone and every situation… it’s not always about “entertainment” — it’s about persuasion, treating your audience with intelligence and balance (as opposed to lecturing) — to me, balance (showing both sides of an issue and letting the audience make up its own mind) is indeed that’s what many documentarians are afraid of; but being entertaining and funny isn’t necessarily the way to win the audience over.

I am proud to say I make documentaries. I no longer think it conjures up the false image of “bad tasting medicine”… I think many fans recognize that a good documentary can be every bit as fascinating and involving as a good scripted movie, in some cases, more so.  There is no one way to make a film and no one path to success.  Some of us come to the documentary form for cinematic reasons — to be storytellers; some approach documentary as a form of political activism; some want to be advocates for their subjects while others want to be critics of their subjects; some approach their material as journalists and other as personal essayists about their own experiences — and some, like me, approach their material for a combination of these aforementioned impulses — and with each film I make the reasons vary — we made the Metallica film (“Some Kind of Monster”) for a different set reasons and impulses than “Paradise Lost” which differed from the reasons I made “Crude” about oil pollution in the Amazon, so let’s not put documentary into one box and let’s not judge the success by whether or not people buy movie tickets.

No one has done more to popularize the documentary form than Michael Moore, but popularity comes in all shapes and sizes and huge box office success shouldn’t be the sole criteria of quality or success. People make films for all sorts of reasons –storytelling,  journalism, advocacy, social commentary, personal essay, entertainment, awareness, even fundraising — there is no one way to make a film and no one benchmark of success. If people want pure, traditional theatrical success at the box office, Michael’s rules are certainly worth considering, but it’s not the only path, and in this brave new world of digital technology, it’s not the only way to make cinematic documentaries.

So, as oxymoronic as this sounds, I do not think documentary cinema, or any cinema for that matter, should be defined by the 20th century technology of sitting in a room of people watching on a big screen who have paid money for a ticket on a Friday night.  Films that are clearly made for television have a certain look and feel. I am not talking about those kind of clearly made-for-television docs (and there is nothing wrong with those kinds of films.)  But cinematic documentaries that have their primary audience at film festivals and end up on television or on a digital platform can be every bit a “theatrical” experience as the films that distributors are willing to release in movie houses — and if they don’t get those traditional theatrical releases and/or do poorly at the box office but find a strong life on television or other digital platforms doesn’t make theme any less cinematic.

I have voiced concern in the past about the direction the Documentary Branch (of which I am a member) has pushed the documentary Academy Awards in terms of qualifying documentaries for awards consideration… the rules overwhelmingly favor and encourage well known filmmakers and “popular” subjects, doing a disservice to equally “cinematic” documentaries about much tougher social issues that may have done extraordinarily well at film festivals and on digital platforms, but can’t meet the financial hurdle of the somewhat arcane eligibility requirements for documentary features… does a week in L.A. or N.Y. paid by a distributor or a broadcaster really make one film more “cinematic” than another that has moved tens of thousands of people at film festivals and goes on to have a strong TV or digital life but didn’t play in a theater for a week and can’t afford the publicist and ad campaign that is required?

One thing you didn’t ask me about but I did want to comment on that Michael Moore mentioned in the manifesto:

Finally, from “Fed Up,” to “Food, Inc.” to “Merchants of Doubt” to “The Invisible War” to “The Kill Team” to “Inside Job” to name a few) to my own films “Crude” and the “Paradise: Lost” trilogy and my Whitey Bulger film, I think there are plenty of filmmakers taking on present day subjects and naming names.

Have endured a grueling lawsuit with Chevron over my movie “Crude,” I would advise filmmakers that they really need to be smart about how they go about making their films to avoid law suits as opposed to encouraging them not to care. Lawsuits can destroy you and your future, and there are actions you can take to minimize your chances of being sued — like balance and accuracy (I was being sued for access to my dailies, not over the content of the film, which could have been far worse for me.) Throwing caution to the wind, to me, is not sound advice.

The reason some of these films that “name names” don’t make into the doc shortlist (Michael says he only sees three or four) is because the documentary rules for eligibility favor the more popular films and popular subjects, exactly the thing that I fear is wrong with the rules and the orientation of his manifesto. Popularity doesn’t always translate into political action. But there are a lot of “naming names” films being made — and filmmakers need to understand the risks so they can mitigate them.

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