Documentaries come in from the cold

The International Documentary Congress, which begins today and runs through Saturday, represents a major Hollywood step toward acknowledging the significance of the nonfiction form.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the International Documentary Associationare presenting the forum.

Principal sponsors are the Eastman Kodak Co., the first corporate sponsor to sign on for the Congress and the major corporate sponsor of the International Documentary Association Outstanding AchievementAwards since their inception in 1984, and the Discovery Networks, the largest purchaser of nonfiction programming in theUnited States.

Other supporters include Time Life Video & TV, Turner Entertainment Networks, KCET and the Florence & John Schumann Foundation.

The Academy has been handing out awards for excellence in documentary features and short subjects for half a century, according to Academy executive director Bruce Davis.

“We’ve been supporting documentaries since World War II and we want to see their theatrical existence continue and prosper,” says Davis.

But 50 years of Oscar recognition has not led to greater theatrical exposure for documentaries–TV and cable have fortunately picked up the slack–or greater visibility with the general public and within Hollywood itself.

This despite the fact that some of the industry’s top talents–Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Michael Apted and Werner Herzog–continue to work in nonfiction and that, both in style and content, documentaries have had an indelible effect on feature films.

Going back to “Citizen Kane,” the documentary style has been incorporated into fictional narratives. More recent examples include Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Tim Robbins’ political satire “Bob Roberts,” Robert Altman’s “The Player,” and even Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives.”

A documentary on the women’s baseball league was the springboard for the summer hit “A League of Their Own,” just as the award-winning “Rosie the Riveter” sparked the Jonathan Demme film “Swing Shift,” which starred Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.

Network television has utilized documentary in several forms, including TV movie docu-dramas–films based on real-life incidents or fictionalizations like “Special Bulletin”–to reality-based programming such as “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted.”

The PBS presentation of Ken Burns’ docu miniseries “The Civil Wars” brought public television its highest ratings ever. And the recent “Scared Silent,” an examination of child abuse, was broadcast by all three networks and PBS and had an audience of 50 million.

In recent years, several theatrical documentaries have broken through to wider public recognition and viewership, including Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line,” Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” Jennie Livingstone’s “Paris is Burning” and the Madonna film, “Truth or Dare.”

In relation to budget, all these films registered healthy B.O. and have had potent homevid and TV lives.

“It’s the best of times and the worst of times,” says IDA president John Wilkman. Best, because the form is evolving and diversifying. Worst, because the financing and distribution of documentaries is, as ever, a daunting task.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, documentaries are tarred with the unflattering brush of being “educational.”

“If you ask people the best film they’ve seen, it’s usually a documentary,” says Wilkman. “They just don’t say it in public.”

Even cable’s Discovery Channel stops short of calling itself the 24-hour documentary channel, “because people look at it so narrowly,” according to programming head Gregory Moyer.

The bad rap that the Academy and IDA are trying to amend is founded in the network news style of documentaries that ruled the airwaves in the 1960s and 1970s, says Moyer. And when the networks pushed off documentaries because of low ratings, they wound up on PBS.

These documentaries “weren’t diverse and the form wasn’t allowed to grow,” says Moyer.

That’s changed thanks to talented filmmakers like Moore and Morris, who have extended the form, and to an ever increasing number of outlets (mostly television) for varied documentaries–everything from standard nature docus to character driven comedic/dramatic situations (MTV’s “Real Life”).

The International Documentary Congress offers the possibility to break through the morass, says IDA executive director Betsy McClane, “because it’s the first time the commercial forces of nonfiction are meeting with the academic (creative) forces.”

In the past, she explains, there have been markets for selling documentaries, or seminars for the aesthetic pursuit of the form. And there have been documentary festivals open to the public.

But at the Congress all three will converge. Filmmakers will tete-a-tete with entrepreneurs to discuss everything from financing to censorship to marketing. In attendance will be filmmakers, distributors, programmers, scholars, critics and members of the public.

The Congress is a significant event for those committed to the nonfiction form, says Wilkman. “It’s been the IDA’s dream for the past 10 years.”

The IDA “has made significant contributions toward encouraging the pursuit of excellence in non-fiction filmmaking,” says Gary Borton, VP and general manager, U.S. and Canada, for Kodak’s Motion Picture & TV Imaging business unit. The Congress, says Borton, “will be good for both the non-fiction film industry and for the community.”

Good timing

The Congress arrives at an opportune time, according to McClane. Documentaries are poised for “mass-audience acceptance,” she says, based on the diverse directions in which the form has been heading.

The dark cloud is, as ever, financing. As corporate sponsorship has evanesced and public broadcasting funds have tightened, documentarians have been turning to the commercial marketplace.

But it’s a continuing struggle and not one that is expected to improve in the near future, at least in the U.S. Therefore, the window of opportunity for foreign money–there has always been greater acceptance of documentaries outside the U.S.–is one that will be closely scrutinized.

Of equal importance, says McClane, is the question of distribution and exhibition.

The overbuilding of multiplexes offers the possibility for exhibitors to set aside a theater or two for non-mainstream films, independent productions and documentaries, says Wilkman. This could allow for improved public access for documentaries.

New technology, says McClane, is another option. “As it opens up, technology will create new distribution lines and could allow funding to get back to the makers.”

Filmmakers need to be especially attentive to the marketing of documentaries, says McClane. Because documentary filmmakers raise much of their money through non-profit situations and deal in subject matter that is sometimes controversial and demanding is no reason to marginalize their audience.

In the past, the documentary world has been a closed one without the kind of interaction that helps shape the commercial TV and film marketplace.

As a result, nonfiction filmmakers have had to make do with the crumbs instead of a large slice of the pie. Pro-active participation in positioning and marketing films–creating event status as “Civil Wars” did–through book and other tie-ins, foreign markets, could change that.

And these are some of the topics on which the attendees at the Documentary Congress will chew.

Roster of events

Among the events planned are financing seminars in both domestic and global arenas, distribution and exhibition opportunities, future technologies and how to make a living as a documentarian.

Serious attention will be paid to foreign documentaries and the problems of censorship. Seminars will deal specifically with rocking the boat, both in terms of subject and in terms of form.

On Friday night the IDA awards banquet will take place. According to Wilkman this will be an opportunity to recognize not only specific films and filmmakers but also technicians in the documentary field, who are otherwise overlooked. Lifetime achievement awards will be presented to Walter Cronkite and to Robert Rosen, the head of the UCLA Film Archives.

On Saturday there will be an all-day DocuFest at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during which the award winning films will be shown.

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