Film Board says docs should get theatrical

Big screen becoming viable option for revitalized genre

TORONTO — It’s difficult to say where fluke left off and the snowball effect took over in the resurgence of documentaries on the bigscreen.

But by the time Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” caught the public’s eye last year, the folks at Canada’s National Film Board had already begun thinking feature docs.

Documentaries have long been conceived and funded solely for television, with theatrical versions created as a festival kudos vehicle and considered by commissioning editors as something of a vanity project on the part of the filmmaker. Theatrical release just wasn’t a viable option in a notoriously penniless industry.

And then along came Michael Moore, “Supersize Me” and “The Fog of War,” plus some others, and suddenly the idea of feature documentaries no longer seems frivolous or far-fetched.

“This is the renewal of a genre that people thought was dead,” says Jacques Bensimon, the National Film Board chair and Canada’s film commissioner.

The subject of adapting the system for the development and funding of feature documentaries was a touchstone among industryites at the NFB Telefilm Documentary Policy Summit in Toronto in April.

The documentary industry is worth C$366 million ($266 million) and provides 15,000 jobs, and the NFB and Telefilm Canada have pledged to work together to make themselves more feature-friendly to that industry.

Telefilm has changed its guidelines to accommodate the distribution of theatrical docs, which could provide a surprise back door to Telefilm’s mandate to increase the indigenous box office to 5%.

Theatrical viability has become “central to the NFB strategy,” says Bensimon. The NFB is investing more in feature documentaries, with close to a dozen feature docs in the works.

“The reason behind this is simple. A lot of our films on a national basis don’t reach out,” says Bensimon. “I continue to believe that television is a great medium, but it’s an old medium and a one-way medium.”

Bensimon believes there is a convergence of opportune elements: New digital technology makes showing docs on the bigscreen more economically possible, and audiences today grew up with specialty television, so they understand the language of documentaries. With the advent of reality TV, Bensimon says, adults 18-25 are deciding that after the Hollywood movie, their first choice at the bigscreen is to see a documentary.

Theatrical release also gives projects legs that they would not otherwise have, he says, noting “The Corporation” was originally commissioned as a three-part series. “It would have become a TV series with an audience of 60,000 at best looking at each episode. But in theatrical release, it’s all of the sudden validated.”

“The Corporation” has earned a B.O. of more than $730,000, making it the most successful all-Canadian doc of all time (as opposed to “Columbine,” which was a co-production). Pic is to be released in the U.S. this summer.

“The Corporation” has for three months been playing at a 10-plex in Vancouver, “up against everything that Hollywood has to offer,” notes Mark Ackbar, the film’s co-director with Jennifer Abbott. “You come up and stand in line and there’s the 10 posters, and it’s ‘What do you want to see, ‘Master and Commander’ or ‘The Corporation,’?’ It’s fantastically gratifying, I must say.”

Bensimon is not to be confused with the NFB’s old guard, the gang who in 1997 would not give Ackbar $5,500 in development monies, in spite of the fact that as a team they had enjoyed enormous success with “Manufacturing Consent.”

“It’s funny that the Film Board is going in that direction now,” he says, “because they rejected this film, although I begged them to participate. They were the first door I knocked on.”

A public institution as long on bureaucracy as it is on patriotism, distribution has not been the NFB’s strong suit since docs left the bigscreen after WWII. The old saying among frustrated producers was: If you want to get rid of AIDS, give it to the Film Board to distribute.

Bensimon stepped in in 2001 to change all that, and has also worked to take the NFB global, forming an Intl. Co-production Unit in 2002 to carry out large-scale projects with the likes of ARTE, PBS and National Geographic. It also created with the BBC and the U.K. Film Council the World Documentary Fund, launched at Cannes last year.

Now Telefilm and NFB are considering whether to move ahead on a network of digital theaters in Canada as a forum for the re-emergence of feature-length docs. There is also a study looking at Holland, where digital projectors are installed in already-built theaters.