Strange truths

Buyers are homing in on nonfiction fare at this year's fest

Expect more acquisitive minds to be focused on nonfiction at the Sundance fest this year.

“Since ‘Bowling for Columbine,’ there’s been a mind shift in the attitude of buyers toward the theatrical potential of documentaries,” says Cinetic Media’s Micah Green. Cinetic repped last year’s Sundance hit “Capturing the Friedmans”; at the 2004 fest it will work again with a number of docs, including “Dig!,” culled from 1,500 hours of footage on the frontmen of bands the Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre; and “Super Size Me,” in which helmer Morgan Spurlock goes on a monthlong McDonald’s-only diet.

There are signs that distribs have been getting more aggressive as the fest approaches. Sundance programmer John Cooper reports he’s had numerous buyers calling him for a heads-up on hot docs since selection announcements were made. And filmmakers including Ramona Diaz (“Imelda”) and Robert Stone (“Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army”) say they’ve fielded multiple requests from potential buyers for advance screenings.

Propelling the increase in buyers’ interest is the ongoing theatrical success of docs, with “Spellbound” and “Winged Migration” among last year’s B.O. hits.

“Everybody wants to have their ‘Spellbound,’ ” says ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman. Think distributed the 2002 Oscar-nommed feature that took in $5.7 million at the domestic B.O. (UA’s “Bowling for Columbine” and Sony Classics’ “Winged Migration” earned $21.6 million and $10.7 million, respectively.)

Still, most docus get made with help from broadcasters. “It’s a high-water-mark time for documentary films,” says Lois Vossen, series producer for PBS’ Independent Lens. “But money is still a problem. Filmmakers are still not paid enough.”

That could change in the wake of the increased theatrical profile and more interest from ancillary distribs, such as Netflix and Docurama, which are expanding their doc libraries.

Stylistically, docs have matured significantly in the past decade. At this year’s festival, the nonfiction programming shows a breadth of subject and style. “What we’re trying to show is documentary that’s cinema, that uses cinema language and delivers an experience as fulfilling as any other theatrical experience,” says Sundance’s docu programmer, Diane Weyermann.

Notably, Stacy Peralta’s doc “Riding Giants” will open Sundance this year — the first nonfiction pic to be granted that honor. ” ‘Riding Giants’ plays big,” notes Cooper, with the pic providing an adrenaline rush that makes sense for opening night.

Peralta uses the big wave as a canvas to frame the history of surfing as well as explain the sports allure. “People navigate their lives around this pursuit that’s a genuine piece of American culture,” enthuses the Malibu-based helmer, whose previous docu effort, “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” won prizes at Sundance in 2001. Though Canal Plus has pre-sold some international rights, “Riding Giants” has yet to ink a domestic deal.

No longer are docus just talking heads, dryly discoursing. “Docs can have a filmmaker at the center of the movie, they can have subtitles, they can have birds,” says Urman. “It is now narrative nonfiction — reality-based, but told with storytelling skills.” Pics often revolve around defined characters with the same attention to detail as fiction.

Among the 46 docs set to unspool at Sundance are several new films from high-profile filmmakers and some that look to deliver commercially.

Stanley Nelson, who won a special jury prize at Sundance last year with “The Murder of Emmett Till,” returns with his personal doc “A Place of Our Own,” about his family’s summers on Martha’s Vineyard.

Sundance vet and Oscar winner Jessica Yu is back with “In the Realm of the Unreal.” Pic, which received funding from ITVS, uses animation to chronicle the life of reclusive Chicago folk artist Henry Darger.

Sundance second-timer Paola di Florio returns with “Home of the Brave,” the story of Viola Liuzzo, a white woman who was murdered in Alabama during the civil-rights movement and whose story was subsequently buried.

“Making docs is an addiction,” says di Florio. “Once you taste it, it’s hard to think you’ll never do it again, but you have to choose carefully, as it takes the life out of you.”

Diaz began fund-raising for “Imelda” in 1997, completing it last fall. With Sundance opening doors, the pressure is on “to be ready to go with your next film,” she says.

If the Philippine government gives permission, Imelda Marcos will attend the festival. And with other docs such as “Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army” and “Chisholm ’72 — Unbought & Unbossed,” there’s the possibility of appearances by Patty Hearst and Shirley Chisholm, making for the ultimate “Surreal Life” episode.

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