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Discovery in docu pact

Prod'n deal takes pics from arthouse to cable

NEW YORK — Feature-length documentaries that premiere at arthouses are getting a fresh lease on life courtesy of Discovery Communications and producer-distributor Camera Planet.

Five well-known filmmakers have signed with the two companies to produce docus for the joint venture: Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA”), Michael Apted (“7 Up” and many Hollywood dramas, including “Coal Miner’s Daughter”), Peter Gilbert (“Hoop Dreams”), Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) and the team of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (“The War Room”).

In a conference call with reporters, Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks, U.S., said he expects to greenlight a number of docus in the next six months to a year. Pics will be cablecast on Discovery after they take a stab at theatrical distribution.

Steve Carlis, co-president of Camera Planet with Steve Rosenbaum, said, “We’re looking for the next ‘Bowling for Columbine.’ ”

“The theatrical release of these movies will make them far more valuable to the Discovery Channel down the road,” Rosenbaum added, because they’ll be at least somewhat known commodities. Camera Planet will engineer the physical distribution of the docus.

Six-month window

Campbell said the first docu could get to theaters early in 2004, with Discovery getting them about six months after their debut in theaters. He said Discovery hasn’t imposed any minimum or maximum budget on the projects. Kopple added that the movies will run between 90 minutes and 100 minutes apiece, allowing Discovery to slot them easily in a two-hour time period with the standard commercial load.

Asked what projects they’re working on, Kopple said she’s doing the hockey equivalent of “Hoop Dreams” called “The Enforcers.” Apted said he’s tackling “the state of civil liberties in America” while still juggling his “7 Up” series in England, America and Russia. Burstein said she’s following the man she calls “the mad dog of the Middle East,” Libya’s dictator Moammar Gadhafi, “to see what’s going on with him, particularly in his relationship with Africa.” Gilbert is following a group of Sudanese men “who got forced into refugee camps and then resettled in America. Now they’re going back to the Sudan to find their families.”

Kopple said that the vogue for reality on the broadcast networks could prove a boon to this new joint venture because “our films will show that reality can be both entertaining and enlightening.”