Event docs rock the ratings

Dinos and '9/11' help genre drop nerd image

PARIS – Forget worthy-but-dull programs about the nesting habits of the crested grebe, airing on the Nerd Channel.

After years of lonely isolation on the unfashionable fringes of showbiz, documentaries have become hip — and they are grabbing attention, and audiences, like never before.

The stupendous success of Michael Moore’s Palme d’Or-winning “Fahrenheit 9/11” is only a part of the story.

Big-name helmers suddenly are getting factual. Little docus like Gaul’s “Being and Having” are notching up ticket sales all over the world.

But it is on television, especially in Europe, that docs flourish.

These primetime ratings smashers aren’t just any old docs. Shows such as “Walking With Dinosaurs,” the 1998 series that launched the genre, “Odyssey of the Species” or “Pompeii” are all big-budget international co-productions that blur the boundaries of the genre, making extensive use of CGI and drama to tell visually exciting, accessible stories aimed at mass audiences.

Such shows have yet to catch on with mainstream commercial television in the U.S., says Margaret Drain, WGBH’s VP for national programs.

“You have to be straightforward with the American audience, or it doesn’t go over very well. We have a tradition of journalistic documentary-making, and mixing that with fiction makes people uncomfortable.”

It’s a different story in Europe.

At the recent Sunny Side of the Doc mart in Marseilles, an event pretty much overlooked by the wider TV biz for most of its 15-year existence, Europe’s major commercial broadcasters were out in force and scrambling for the hottest projects.

“Competition was bloody,” reports Sunny Side president and France 2 docu head Yves Jeanneau.

After dinosaurs, sea monsters and other benign subject matter, the recent historical doc “Pompeii” seems to be the inspiration behind the apocalyptic disaster-films-posing-as-docs that filmmakers have in store for viewers.

One of the hottest properties at Sunny Side was the BBC’s “Supervolcano,” which explores an event that experts say is thousands of years overdue — the eruption of the world’s largest volcano, underneath Yellowstone Park, and the ensuing global chaos.

“It’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” says Thomas Von Hennet, doc head at Teuton channel ProSieben.

Although it was the exec’s first visit to Sunny Side, ProSieben has aired event docs since the BBC’s CGI special “Walking With Dinosaurs.” But for other European terrestrial webs down in Marseilles, it’s a new genre.

M6, France’s second commercial web, also has boarded “Supervolcano.”

M6 doc topper Frederic Dezert tells Variety: “When you are competing with Bruce Willis on one channel and Julia Roberts on another, you have to give audiences something that is even stronger. ‘Supervolcano’ is more powerful television than ‘The Day After’ because it is something that will happen one day — we just don’t know when.”

With production budgets of around e2 million ($2.5 million) an hour, event docs may cost a broadcaster 10 times as much as a local doc, or four times as much as a more traditional international co-prod. But two or three of them can be had for the price of a theatrical feature.

And the audiences achieved compare well with anything else on European television.

In France, which initiated the project, “Odyssey of the Species” drew nearly 9 million primetime viewers for France 3, doubling the pubcaster’s usual audience share to more than 34%. France 2 notched a similar performance with “Pompeii.”

The feeding frenzy over the hottest projects has hiked prices.

The BBC, purveyor of most of the sought-after docs, has been the main beneficiary, although others are hatching ambitious projects to rival the Beeb’s.

“It has become easier to raise finance,” says Mike Phillips, managing director of BBC Intl., “but because these programs are so expensive to make, we can’t do them without several co-production partners.”

The BBC has a first-look deal with Discovery, which usually contributes 20%-25% of a show’s budget, and will co-produce most of its event docs with France and Germany or Japan.

When Discovery and the BBC embarked on the $10 million “Walking With Dinosaurs,” they probably didn’t realize they were redefining high-end nonfiction TV.

By introducing movie-grade action and pacey dramatic narrative to the genre, they raised viewer expectations to a new level. As one factual executive puts it: “The audience is greedy. They expect this level of sophistication every time.”

The bad news is that event documentaries are hideously expensive to produce.

From a creative viewpoint, the need for international finance limits the subjects such docs can tackle. Even a show like “D-Day,” which recounted the wartime event from a British perspective, performed slightly below par in other countries.

The BBC is on safer ground with “Space Odyssey,” an upcoming “specumentary” about a trip around the solar system in the company of a team of astronauts.

“The series is factually based,” says Phillips. “NASA says that if it had the entire GNP of the United States to spend on space travel, this is what it would be like.”

Broadcasting chiefs say the success of event docs is having a beneficial effect on documentary viewing as a whole. During the recent D-Day 60th-anni commemorations, Arte’s classic-style docu “Summer of ’44” garnered a hefty 8 million viewers.

But producers of more standard docs complain it is harder than ever to obtain funding.

The humble documaker today is also up against big-name competition, as growing numbers of well-known film directors turn their hands to factual filmmaking.

“Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues,” which aired on PBS in America, gave helmers like Wim Wenders, Clint Eastwood and Mike Figgis the chance to indulge a personal passion for music — and gave broadcasters names that attracted audiences.

Documaking also can give directors’ careers a satisfying shot of gravitas.

Oliver Stone’s “Looking for Fidel,” with its scoop interviews with Fidel Castro, made the director the envy of political journos everywhere. Sean Penn soon will add his name to the list with a docu about Afghanistan.

For foreign-language Oscar winner Regis Wargnier, the pleasure in making a doc about world-class athletes for France 2 was letting the story tell itself.

“I had wanted to make a film about sport for a long time, but I realized that no screenplay could better the incredible true stories of these athletes,” says the helmer.

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