Paradox for German docs

Org fights to keep them on air, yet few watch

German industryites’ fight to keep documentaries on TV has exposed the uncertain state of the genre in the country.

When pubcaster ARD threatened to cancel its Monday night primetime doc strand in favor of more populist content last week, doc filmmakers’ org AG Dokumentarfilm mounted an outcry that went way beyond industry press.

It won support from the mainstream media and engaged political clout from Minister of Culture Bernd Neumann, who called ARD’s proposed cut deplorable and accused it of “violating the mandate of public television.”

ARD grudgingly agreed to keep the Monday doc on its new schedule but exiled it to latenight — again incurring the wrath of AG Dokumentarfilm.

The org was also irritated by ARD’s decision to air more docs in summer when viewership falls as Germans take vacations.

The conflict reflects a paradox in a country where feature-length documentaries represent a significant presence on the theatrical landscape.

Between 2007 and 2009, some 368 locally made docs were released theatrically, according to a recent study by the German Federal Film Board.

Most underperformed at the box office, with a few notable exceptions. Helmer Sung-Hyung Cho’s 2007 “Full Metal Village,” about the heavy metal music fest that brings 70,000 fans to the village of Wacken, made a respectable $1.3 million.

TV viewers become the docs’ ultimate audience — indeed, docs are a pubcaster staple. But, again, these films are not ratings champs.

At a time when TV budgets are being cut and the role of public television is being redefined, docs are the first to go.

French-German cultural channel Arte had become a major venue for docs. But it has to wait for the films to unspool on the bigscreen before it can air them. It is sitting on a backlog of 60 films — so many that it has an unofficial moratorium on the genre.

Documakers now find themselves in a Catch 22. For their projects to be financed, they need film subsidy support, which in turn requires a theatrical release.

But to qualify for the subsidy, filmmakers need participation from pubcasters to guarantee some degree of marketability and account for the producers’ minimum share of the budget.

With broadcasters paying less and demanding more rights, it’s all the more necessary to secure film subsidy financing. But commissioning editors, needing product they can show immediately, are getting less involved in theatrical docs.

One commissioning editor acknowledges the dilemma, saying, “When you take the programs that are made for TV, you just get typical TV product. And that’s not what we want.”

Regional film subsidy funds like Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg remain supportive of theatrical docs, both in production and distribution, but competition for screens and a decline of programming strands makes the endgame difficult.

But industryites believe the fact that docs get screen time and are taken seriously, regardless of mass appeal, makes the fight worthwhile.

Whether AG Dokumentarfilm can shout loudly enough to change the situation remains to be seen.

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