Nonfiction filmmakers in feverish fight for auds

For every “Inside Job,” this year’s Oscar winner for best documentary feature, there are thousands of docs seeking a distributor. For every Ken Burns, Michael Moore and Josh Fox, who produced 2010 breakout doc “Gasland,” there are thousands of producers trying to get their foot in the door.

The fact is that producers who want to work in nonfiction probably have more chance if they head toward the so-called factual TV series, shows like Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch” or History’s “Ice Road Truckers,” which are more popular than ever.

That said, ambitious producers are still making these fact-based movies, hoping they’ll break through to a broader audience. How to finance and produce that one special film will be a hot topic at this year’s MIPDoc, kicking off MIP in Cannes April 2-3.

“Basically, the longform reality series is eating away at a great deal of the documentary industry,” says Mark Starowicz, executive director of documentary programming at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

“It’s absolutely a buyer’s market — there are about 100 programs available per slot,” adds Esther van Messel, founder and CEO of Zurich-based First Hand Films. “Every buyer has to reject 99 to program their schedule. Today, everyone can make a movie on their mobile phone and cut it on their laptop. Technically, it’s very easy to make documentaries, but you still need to have basic dramaturgical structure, a protagonist and three acts.”

Starowicz says that “theatrical documentaries are being made more than ever, but they are starting out at and being kept alive by the festival circuit,” places such as Tribeca, Sundance or the just-concluded SXSW in Austin. From there, producers hope to secure theatrical distribution and then head to television as the last stop in what can be a multiyear journey.

To some extent, that model is backwards, say executives.

“I was pitched a one-off documentary by a producer two weeks ago,” says Mitchell Block, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and adjunct professor at USC’s film school. “She was insistent that it be a feature. But even if you do $1 million in theatrical revenue, that means probably $100,000 coming back to you. Who’s kidding whom? How many feature documentaries gross $5 million and return $2.5 million?”

“There are still a lot of people who think that theatrical distribution is really the way to go,” says Claire Aguilar, programming veep at the San Francisco-based Independent Television Service. “That’s the holy grail if you are an independent documentary filmmaker. A lot of that is perpetuated by the glory of those films that do make it big. But it’s very rare.”

“If I was an independent producer I would try to do it differently, making TV a part of the plan from the very beginning,” says Bridget Hunnicutt, NatGeo’s SVP of global development, a division that develops and acquires documentaries from all over the world. “TV is really important in terms of getting it out there and getting the buzz out there.”

Television also offers a significant number of options for documentary filmmakers. In the U.S., HBO is credited with almost singlehandedly reviving the cinematic documentary. Upstart OWN has announced in January that Rosie O’Donnell would host a documentary series on the network, starting with “Becoming Chaz” in May. The film features Chaz Bono’s transition from woman to man and premiered at Sundance in January.

IFC, Sundance, the Documentary Channel and PBS all still offer a relatively robust mix of traditional documentaries, while nonfiction channels such as History, Nat Geo and Discovery remain firmly in the documentary biz, whether they are offering longform series, such as History’s recent “America: The Story of Us,” or Nat Geo’s “Great Migrations.”

For HBO, documentaries are partly a brand-builder, but they are also a labor of love. The subscription-based channel has the luxury of being able to afford documentaries, and they are a format that caters to its affluent audience.

“A project doesn’t have to be economically feasible for it to catapult the brand to status and make you want to be a part of it,” says Sheila Nevins, HBO’s president of documentary films. “Sometimes it’s just about empathy, compassion and nudging the world into a better place.”

No matter how altruistic the motivation, any documentary’s best chance of surviving and succeeding is backed by solid financials. Those come from a variety of places: grants and trusts, co-productions or flat-out commissions from networks. Flexibility helps too: a documentarian might know exactly the film she or he wants to make, but chances are so does the acquiring network, and whoever is paying will want to have input.

“We finance documentaries in three ways,” says Nevins. “We make them from scratch and finance them totally. We co-finance and co-produce them with other networks, such as the BBC. Or we acquire the finished project and then fix them.”

A few filmmakers have found funds by using what’s being called “crowd-sourcing,” which is putting an idea for a film on the Internet and asking people to contribute small amounts of money towards it. Web sites like Kickstarter and even Facebook allow producers to post their projects and seek funding.

Most executives have not seen this model work, but ITS’ Aguilar says “a lot of our producers are using crowd-source funding in addition to grants and other means.”

The key, like in all creative fields, is to produce a film that people want to see.

“More and more films come with a bit of financing,” says Nevins. “If it comes to us first, we can often finance it by ourselves. If we want it badly enough, we’ll go out and make it.”

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