Helmers lured to doc genre

Though seemingly forever relegated to the bottom of the box-office spectrum and “niche-market” programming, the documentary arena is undergoing a transfusion of new blood. While renowned docu helmers such as Errol Morris and Rob Epstein are turning to dramatic features, directors known primarily for fiction such as Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and the Hughes brothers are taking time out to explore the world of non-fiction filmmaking. Meanwhile, Michael Apted and Jonathan Demme, who have had successes in both camps, continue to work on launching new docs.

Lee’s feature-length “Four Little Girls,” investigating the murder of four black girls in a 1963 church bombing, was commissioned by HBO, and will premiere on the network next year after some fest showings. The Hughes brothers “American Pimp,” a peep inside the prostitution racket, is still up for distribution.

Jarmusch’s “Year of the Horse,” a biopic of veteran rocker Neil Young on his 1996 European and U.S. tour, shot largely on Super-8 by Jarmusch and producer L.A. Johnson, will be released in October through, appropriately enough, October Films.

October partner Bingham Ray, who picked up worldwide rights to the music pic, says commercial potential was not his first thought. “I wasn’t thinking numbers when I watched the film,” he says. “Similar to one of the seminal concert films, ‘The Last Waltz,’ the film gives you behind-the-scenes, personal looks at the band. It also weaves in historical references… It was made with a great amount of fun and abandon and passion, and we’ll distribute it with equal passion.

“There are dozens and dozens of docs that are not appropriate for theatrical release,” adds Ray. “The distinction is reflected in the content — a historical piece, mixing in archival footage, seems more appropriate for TV. Subjects for the theatrical market are daring, controversial, off the beaten path. ‘Roger and Me,’ Errol Morris’ work, ‘Crumb’ are extraordinary films.”

The Jonathan Demme-produced “Mandela,” official film bio of political prisoner-turned-president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, is in release through Island Pictures and Manga Entertainment.

Martin Scorsese and Michael Apted are also developing non-fiction projects. Scorsese, who edited “Woodstock,” the top-grossing documentary of all time at $33 million, is at home in the documentary genre (“The Last Waltz,” “Italianamerican,” “A Personal Journey Through American Movies”). He is now developing a project with producer Vittorio Cecchi Gori in celebration of Italian cinema.

Michael Apted, well-known for his “7-Up” cycle, will be lensing “42-Up” this December, and is currently prepping the Toronto premiere of “Inspirations,” a recently completed work investigating the creative process, featuring interviews with seven artists in different fields, including singer David Bowie and painter Roy Lichtenstein.

When asked why he keeps coming back to documentaries, Apted concedes that “there’s no money,” but offers, “I kind of think it being where my soul is. I think my work is better for the work I do in documentaries.”

Although Apted says he loves doing both fiction and documentaries, he says docus take him out of the pressure cooker of Hollywood. “Documentaries carry a different kind of power,” Apted says. “It’s more visceral when the audience knows it’s looking at the real thing, where in fiction, you always have this safety valve. Though there’s nothing intrinsically truer about docs, really.”

Making docs pay

The “no money” stigma of documentaries is largely developed out of theatrical numbers. Out of all docs released theatrically last year, only eight grossed more than $150,000 in box office receipts, according to the Intl. Documentary Assn. Yet, theatrical distribs and cable networks such as HBO, A&E and Discovery consider docus viable.

Key to success

Sheila Nevins, senior VP of family programming and documentaries at HBO, says, “Since HBO’s initial reality programming in 1978, documentaries have maintained their position as the cornerstone of our success.” Discovery Channel spokesman Jim Boyle calls documentary viewers “very desirable because of their educational background and income level. The non-fiction audience is being cultivated through other formats, such as CD-ROMs and the Internet. In our universe of 71 million homes, that adds up.”

Michael Cascio, VP of documentary programming at A&E, relies on documentaries as “a very viable programming tool to get people to watch every night.”

On television, documentaries are the third cheapest format to produce, after talk shows and cooking shows. And when comparing the $60 million pricetag attached to the average Hollywood picture, documentary budgets — usually riding below the million dollar mark — require a fraction of the recoup numbers demanded by their studio brethren.

Controversy sells

Cablers, especially subscriber-based channels, look at the 67% of American households with multi-channel televisions (add satellite subscribers and you get 70%), and see goldmines. And in a marketplace where controversy translates into ticket sales, documentaries can parlay scandal into success like no other genre. Ray sees the lines between docus and dramatic features beginning to blur: “A good film is a good film, fact or fiction. When you love film and you see a great story and you admire the filmmaking behind it, it works. Period.”

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