Theatrical-run rule narrows down field for documentary competition

Last year’s Sundance Film Festival screened a number of well-received documentaries, including Errol Morris’ “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Kirby Dick’s “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist,” and Arthur Dong’s “Licensed to Kill,” as well as a long list of high-quality docu features that didn’t generate as much attention but nevertheless proved to be strong, compelling projects.

Other docus by high-profile directors appeared at later festivals, including Michael Apted’s “Inspirations,” Spike Lee’s “Four Little Girls,” and Michael Moore’s “The Big One.” And yet, despite the prevalence of such formidable works, non-fiction films continue to struggle theatrically, and this is especially true this year as competition for screens continues to be fierce, and the competition for Oscar renders a dwindling number of eligible candidates.

Cart before the horse

With last year’s revision in the Academy’s docu rules — eliminating film festival screenings and prizes as a means of qualification, and mandating a minimum one-week theatrical run — documentarians are becoming more hard-pressed to attain Academy cachet. In the past, the Oscars were one means for non-fiction filmmakers to achieve wider recognition, and even secure a theatrical release for their film. But for many Academy critics, the cart now appears to come before the horse. And the glut of studio and indie features isn’t making things any easier.

Zeitgeist co-president Emily Russo found things tight in July when her company released “Anthem,” a documentary chronicling the ways Americans feel about the U.S. “It’s a tough time to hold on to screens,” says Russo, “and this is hard because documentary films need screen time, but they can’t get it. There’s a lack of screens and a lot more competition in the marketplace.”

Some distributors try to beat the lack of regular screens by booking their films in other venues. As Sande Zeig of Artistic License, who just released “Riding the Rails,” notes, “Places like the Cleveland Cinematheque are very dependable — I know that there is a long list of programmers that I can depend on to program these films. It’s a low-budget way of releasing, but I know I can get at least 50 playdates this way.”

L.A., N.Y. only need apply

While Cleveland might serve as a metropolitan alternative for indie filmmakers to exhibit their wares, it won’t aid in a documentary’s Oscar cause, as feature-length docus must play in L.A. County or the borough of Manhattan to assure Academy eligibility.

The result is fewer feature-length docus, 57, that were submitted during this year’s eligibility period — Nov. 1, 1996 through Oct. 31, 1997 — than the past two years, when the exact number of films, 68, vied for the 1995 and 1996 feature docu Oscars.

Moreover, sometimes subject matter, often the selling point for a docu, can work against a film’s theatrical survival. Seventh Art Releasing picked up Mark Harris’ Holocaust documentary, “The Long Way Home,” following Sundance last year, and while the film begins as the Allied troops are opening the concentration camps and thus covers a story not often told, the distributor has nevertheless found it difficult garnering substantial audiences. “We’ve done better in Los Angeles than we expected,” concedes Oren Bitan, director of development and acquisitions, “but it’s still a challenge.”

Double standard

Larger companies also struggle. CFP snagged Dick’s “Sick” last year at Sundance. The film profiles L.A. icon Bob Flanagan, who turned the suffering of cystic fibrosis into masochistic performance art. While the film has generated rave reviews, Tom Ortenberg, CFP senior vice president of distribution and marketing, says that it’s still a difficult film to market. The first difficulty was getting mainstream critics into screenings. “Once we got them in, they almost unanimously liked the film,” he says.

“The biggest problem, though, is that even in some of the best reviews, the critics hesitate to recommend the film. I think this is an incredibly elitist position. The critic is saying that he can deal with this subject matter, but he’s not sure if anyone else can.”

Nevertheless, for “Sick” director Dick the release of his documentary bodes well for docs in general. “What I find interesting is that if you make a small documentary, there’s this niche. If you get it into the Nuart for a week, that’s decent exposure.” He adds, “One of the advantages of documentaries is that you don’t have to put out the money for stars. Your subject matter will promote the film and this allows the smaller distributors — smaller than CFP and October — to do a great job.”

Notorious ommisions

Ironically, success and notoriety have proved to be historic drawbacks in attaining Academy nominations; witness the fate of such non-nominated but highly lauded works as “Hoop Dreams,” “Crumb,” “The Thin Blue Line” and “Roger and Me,” to name a few.

“Traditionally, the way documentaries were chosen to be in theaters was based on subject matter,” comments filmmaker and Independent Feature Project/West board member Ted Thomas. “The bizarre, the strange, and the offensive: these were the criteria. I would like to see the day when people would come to theaters due to artistry of filmmaking.”

In an effort to highlight this artistry, the IFP/West last year made a special award at the Independent Spirit Awards for “When We Were Kings.” “Nonfiction filmmaking has had a strong stylistic impact on current narrative filmmaking whether it’s the faux documentary techniques or the documentary storytelling devices adopted by narrative filmmakers,” says Thomas, explaining the IFP/West’s intent.

“We also felt that the award could draw attention to nonfiction filmmaking. All the organizations that currently recognize documentaries tend to recognize broadcast documentaries as well as theatrical documentaries, and even though the Academy changed the rules, they have still tended to use the award to recognize dark horse films. Also, subject matter is often awarded as much as filmmaking. We wanted to create an award that specifically recognized strong filmmaking.”

Theatrical exposure key

Michael Apted, director of the “Up” series and more recently the documentary “Inspirations,” feels that documentaries need theatrical exposure for reasons beyond box office grosses or Academy consideration. “The reason I want theatrical distribution for my documentaries is because it helps the film enter the culture. Documentaries can only enter the culture if they get the attention the cinema gives them.”

Spike Lee also wanted to see his documentary in theaters. Although “Four Little Girls” will screen on HBO in February, the film enjoyed a limited release this fall. “We felt that the film should be seen in theaters,” Lee notes.

Lee’s film investigates the events before and after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963, when four young women died. It opened in 10 cities, and although the 6 o’clock show on opening day in Birmingham was marred by a bomb scare, the film did exceptionally well in that particular city, and played long runs in others.

For Apted, the distribution of docs is essential. “It’s crucial that we find distributors and that distributors stay open to the form because we don’t want to see these films disappear. It’s become the great democratic form — as fiction films get more expensive, this form is the one that’s still accessible to anyone with a Hi-8 camera.”

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