Is Chico Colvard nervous? Could be: When the first-time docmaker arrives at Sundance with his very personal “Family Affair,” his competition will include three Oscar winners, four one-time nominees and a lineup of nonfiction directors who’ve made enough movies to fill six seasons of “POV” — on subjects as diverse as war crimes, Al Gore and Muhammad Ali. If Colvard isn’t on edge, he should be defusing bombs.
The wealth of talent in this year’s Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Competition reflects an effort to stress storytelling over pure journalism (according to festival director John Cooper), but it also illustrates the not-quite-dire but perhaps unjust state of domestic nonfiction filmmaking. “Just because you’ve won an Oscar,” says Diane Weyermann of Participant Media, which has four movies at Sundance this year including work by Oscar laureates Alex Gibney and Davis Guggenheim, “doesn’t mean you automatically get to make another film.”
Or even make a living,” offers Sundance programmer Caroline Libresco.
But if U.S. distribution is what you want, you want to go to Sundance, whose pool of potential buyers will share something with the docmakers — blind faith. Maybe even optimism.
We’re definitely doc-shopping,” says Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker. “In the current marketplace, you can’t have a closed mind. You don’t know from where success is going to come. It comes from the most surprising places.”
Howard Cohen of Roadside Attractions says his company’s two real successes last year were Sundance documentaries, “three, if you count ‘The Cove’ being a success of esteem, if not a big financial hit. But ‘Good Hair’ and ‘The September Issue’ both did in the $4 million range and that’s better than a lot of fiction films.”
Those deals were made at Sundance, although the “September Issue” pact was announced post-fest. “I think the festival plays a crucial part, even if you buy it later,” Cohen adds. “Most of the deals these days will come after the festival — I think very few people are rushing to make deals at film festivals. I don’t think anyone’s anxious to compete, because the margins are so narrow. What you pay, and what kind of deal you make, is crucial to your ability to succeed with something.”
Last time we had 10 or 11 films, and sold all of them,” says Josh Braun, whose Submarine shingle specializes in docs. “We just didn’t go in expecting to have bidding wars on every single film. We just went in realistically and said it’s not going to happen five minutes after the first screening,” though Braun says there was a bidding war after the festival on “The Cove.” This year, he’s got docs such as “The Tillman Story” and the 3D “Cane Toads” on his slate.
Braun — like every other producers rep — looks for docs he loves and that also have strong commercial potential. Commerce, however, is not supposed to be a concern of the Sundance programmers — David Courier and Libresco being among the programmers behind a roster that includes 12 World Cinema docs, eight in the Spotlight section and two in Premieres (“Cane Toads” and “Shock Doctrine”). But it’s those 16 films in the 2010 U.S. competition that usually get the critical focus and where the range of subject matter — and experience — is all over the map.
Part of what we try to do,” says Courier, “is balance the heavy-issue docs with films like ‘Joan Rivers — the bio doc by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (“The Devil Came on Horseback”) — “or ‘Lucky,’ which is about people winning the lottery and how it changes their life. It’s funny that there are two really great documentaries about the paparazzi this year: Leon Gast’s film, ‘Smash His Camera,’ about Ron Galella, and (Spotlight section entry) ‘Teenage Paparazzo,’ which actor Adrian Grenier made about this 13-year-old kid who took pictures of him. Adrian turned the tables on this kid and made a whole documentary about him, and the celebrity-crazed culture we have.”
There are plenty of “hot-button-issue” docs, too, Courier says, including “12th and Delaware” about right-to-life clinics popping up across the street from abortion clinics, and the “8: The Mormon Proposition,” examining the Mormon Church’s promotion of California’s Prop. 8, which denied marriage rights to same-sex couples. “For us to be playing that film in Utah is pretty damn ballsy,” Courier says. “But we wouldn’t be playing it if it weren’t a really great documentary.”
There are far more great documentaries out there than Sundance has room for, according to Libresco, who concedes that there are also needier filmmakers than some of those being showcased by Sundance. “But let’s distinguish between films and filmmakers,” she says. “Some of these filmmakers may not need the imprimatur of Sundance, but the films themselves do, and the documentary economy is so different from the narrative world that we wouldn’t want to not include those films. It’s never foolproof, but to a large degree we are creating that pool of films that are going to be the important documentaries of the year.”