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Docs no longer just filler

Since 'Fahrenheit,' auds just can't seem to get enough

Over the last decade, U.S. documentary filmmaking has come out of its backwater to become a front-and-center genre for folks turned off by soundbites and slanted journalism.

Think “Super Size Me” and a pair of Michael Moore pics — “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” They made waves at the box office; now many other docs are finding their way to the small screen as well.

Younger auds reared on a diet of reality TV are more accepting of the medium, says Richard Life, head of co-productions for Channel 4 in the U.K. What was once an art form on the periphery of commercial media is generating $100 million blockbusters that compete with A-list Hollywood movies.

Television has significantly contributed to the surge in activity, says Paola Frecchero, senior VP of film programming at Sundance Channel.

“Docs have entered the pop culture consciousness. Suddenly it’s become very chic for sales people and producers to stay in nonfiction.”

Nick Fraser, commissioning editor of the Beeb’s “Storyville” series, says, “The fact is that a lot of U.S. product is so good that I could program my whole schedule with it.”

And that product is being developed both in the States and in Europe.

“Today there is an infrastructure to nurture projects,” Fraser says. “EU subsidies are extremely useful. I meet regularly with other European broadcaster partners to discuss what each of us is interested in.”

Fraser gets involved early in the process because it reduces clearance problems endemic to theatrical distribution.

His agenda at Mipcom is limited because he prefers to deal with filmmakers directly. “At Sundance I typically pick up five to six projects. Mipcom is just a lot of catalog product,” he says.

Lisa Heller, VP of documentary and family programming at HBO, says that although the cabler’s focus is strong verite, flexibility is what makes the net attractive to filmmakers.

“Our big luxury is being able to break the rules, if necessary, to allow filmmakers to experiment with different styles, formats and topics,” she explains.

Nets such as Discovery are reaching out to fresh talent to invigorate their slates. Channel proliferation has created an enormous appetite for programming. Each brand has its own DNA encoded with a set of values. However, the challenge is the same for all programmers: how to stay fresh and be hot season after season.

The trend with these brands is to produce for the local market but to tackle universal subjects that appeal to international markets.

Michael Katz, VP of international programming at A&E networks, says his cabler is quite active developing pilots.

“We are reaching out to smaller and midsize indie producers to avoid getting insular and stale. The American system is flexible enough to incorporate a variety of styles and techniques. What’s hot is a point of view and narrative style that borrows heavily from reality formats.”

At Mipcom, Katz will focus on selling “Growing Up Gotti,” a series about a single mom who’s the daughter of the notorious Mafia boss. Also up for sale is “Nine Men Down,” a docu about nine journalists killed on the same day in the Vietnam War.

National Geographic is in a unique position because it has a strong brand identity without being perceived as having an American slant. Ian James, prexy of National Geographic Intl. TV, says budgets range from $200,000-$300,000 per hour on the lower end to $1 million for top-end product.

James says Nat Geo produces for the global marketplace rather than individual ones. “How to tweak a documentary so that it travels well is an integral part of the production process.”

James adds that culturally specific stories have little resonance internationally.

Filmmaker Peter Gilbert is a key player in the new Discovery Docs brand. Gilbert was enticed by Discovery’s interest in social issues and the opportunity to have his films cross-marketed over all of Discovery’s platforms.

Says Gilbert, “I didn’t feel that I had to pitch them a show about strippers. They’ve given me really good input and let me make the movie I want to make.”

His arrangement with Discovery is a collaborative partnership that leaves him free to produce films with other partners.

In addition, the Discovery Times Channel — a joint venture with the New York Times — offers another venue for serious filmmakers.