Documentaries thrive in tough times

Beaten-down broadcasters focused on reality

LONDON — If it’s true that serious times demand serious fare, a new golden age of docus may be on the horizon.

“The mood of the times plays into the hands of documentary makers,” says John Willis, longtime British TV producer and exec who runs U.K. shingle Mentorn. “Documentaries always go in and out of fashion, but despite the credit crunch the documentary is holding up rather well.

“We live in complicated and rather frightening times, when there is a lot of confusion about what’s happening. There is an opportunity for documentary makers to help people make sense of the world,” he says.

Rory Kennedy, who will be delivering a keynote speech at Mipdoc with Liz Garbus, her partner in New York-based Moxie Firecracker Films, agrees with Willis.

“In difficult times, documentaries are more popular,” she says. “People look to them for a reality check.”

With the biggest economic crisis since 1945 eroding people’s sense of security, mounting evidence of climate change, wars raging in both Iraq and Afghanistan and in Barack Obama the most charismatic global leader in a generation, there is no shortage of topics to inspire docu filmmakers.

So can the entertainment business rise to the challenge? Or will producers and directors find themselves derailed by a lack of money as they try to raise coin for their projects?

“There’s a lot of anxiety out there,” admits Garbus, an Oscar nominee (“The Farm: Angola, USA”) whose award-winning films have aired on such webs as HBO, A&E and the Sundance Channel in the U.S. and Channel 4 in the U.K.

“We’re very lucky because a lot of our films are fully funded by HBO, but I know a lot of people who haven’t got access to the budgets they had in less financially constrained times,” says Garbus

Her next film is “Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech,” which will be shown on HBO in July.

Having been responsible for driving through a rationalization program at the BBC during his last job as the Corp.’s director of factual and learning, Willis needs no reminding of the financial challenges facing today’s documentarians.

“Clearly there is a lot of downward pressure on budgets from broadcasters, not just in the U.K. but around the world,” he says.

“Everywhere the expectation is that producers will do more for less. In the past, even a big documentary project will have been funded primarily by one or two broadcasters.

“Today for the flagship projects — whether you are based in the U.S., the U.K., France or Canada — there’s an increased demand for co-productions. That is the only way these films will get made. Everyone is feeling the pressure.”

London-based documentarian Geoffrey Smith, maker of the acclaimed “The English Surgeon” — the story of an altruistic brain surgeon who brings hope to patients and their families in the Ukraine by operating for free — agrees that self-funded docus are largely a relic from more prosperous times.

“Co-productions are the name of the game,” he says. “Even if the BBC wants a film, you will have to raise at least half the money from other sources.”

Costing around £250,000 ($350,000), “The English Surgeon” was financed from backers on both sides of the Atlantic. In Blighty, the BBC invested in the film through its much celebrated long-running “Storyville” strand. Another European backer was Finnish pubcaster YLE.

In the U.S., Independent Television Service also chipped in via its funding scheme for foreign filmmakers tackling non-U.S. stories, known as the international call.

Thanks to slots on TV and screenings at approximately 60 film festivals around the world, “The English Surgeon” gained enough critical traction to win a theatrical release on the U.S. arthouse circuit.

Following a distribution deal with Indiepix, the film is due to bow in U.S. arthouse theaters this month.

“The film is actually making money,” says a slightly amazed Smith. “It’s very rare for an independent film to make money, but if you fund it through TV money or ITVS, you are only selling licenses to broadcasters. An enormous amount of work went into putting all these deals together and in finding the right distributor.”

TIP SHEET

What: Mipdoc

When: March 28-29

Where: Cannes, France

Keynote: Rory Kennedy, Liz Garbus

Website: mipdoc.com

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