Market Preview: Mipdoc

TORONTO — On-the-go entertainment has most TV executives thinking about shorter-length and smaller-screen programming, but documentary producers seem determined to rebel against the trend.

Boosted by the box office success of “An Inconvenient Truth” and “March of the Penguins,” some indie production companies are introducing feature lengths to their development slates of mainly one-hour TV docs.

An indie can create a movie from its high-definition footage for a fraction of the big-budget costs of Hollywood blockbusters and make some money back.

It’s a trend that Michael Harris, general manager at Canada’s Documentary Channel, says will play into most conversations at Mipdoc this year.

However, while there is a business for feature lengths outside of the movie theater, PBS senior veep and chief TV programming executive John Wilson warns the longer the doc, the fewer the blocks. Most international broadcasters aren’t opening up their schedules to accommodate the expected upsurge of longer-length nonfiction.

ABC in Australia, for instance, commissioned only two long format docs in the past three years, and Stuart Menzies, head of documentaries, doesn’t see more in his sked. He says feature-length docs don’t necessarily cross over to TV mainly because the captive experience of watching in a cinema house is different from distraction-filled home viewing.

Opportunities do exist to secure a TV commission for a feature doc, but with an increased slate to choose from, broadcast buyers are more discerning. Peter Gaffney, VP of scheduling and acquisitions at the History Channel, says most documentary theatricals are created for niche moviegoing audiences, and he’d rather commission a made-for-TV format with a universal theme to secure top ratings with a mainstream audience.

Cinema docs may not find an easy home on some broadcast schedules, but the classic 52-

minuter pitched at Mipdoc is drawing inspiration from its theatrical cousin. Wilson says he’s seeing more TV pitches in the observational style of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock.

Agree or disagree with the presenters, it’s an entertaining way to deal with a serious topic, and TV producers are adopting it to cover hot-button issues such as following soldiers in Iraq as well as less controversial domestic themes such as successful inventions.

Evan Shapiro, exec VP and general manager at IFC, says the trend is a byproduct of reality television, where audiences are comfortable seeing stories unfold through the prism of presumed authenticity.

“I think it has opened up the minds of the American public to the idea of cinema verite as an art form they can appreciate,” he says.

The style is also being credited for the recent upswing in re-created historical drama pitches. Both PBS and Oz’s ABC are seeing an increased number of proposals that call for actors to speak directly to the camera.

Wilson says it’s a new way of conveying prephotographic history and can capture strong ratings because it creates a connection with the characters that traditional talking-head docs cannot achieve.

Environmentalism will return as the top theme of many pitches at Cannes, but in a proactive and emotionally engaging style.

ZDF director of acquisitions Volker Lehmann says predictions regarding the future of the planet are a keen TV draw, but Menzies says the subject will move away from doom and gloom. The audience is relying on docs to offer solutions.

“As the world gets more complicated, people are increasingly looking to docs to help interpret the human condition and what it means to be alive,” he says.

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