As documentaries continue to gain a higher profile at the box office, buyers at Sundance 2005 will be feverishly searching for the next “Super Size Me” or “Spellbound,” and this year’s lineup will give them plenty to chew on.
Fest organizers have worked diligently to develop auds for U.S. docs — now very popular with oversubscribed screenings — and this year have beefed up the World Documentary section by making it competitive.
“We’re elevating international documentaries to the next level, putting them on par with the U.S. competition,” says Sundance docs programmer Diane Weyermann.
But until a film screens and the buzz starts, it’s difficult to anticipate which, if any, films will breakout commercially.
“The mistake buyers make is looking for last year’s hit instead of next year’s success,” says Micah Green of Cinetic Media, the sales company behind “Super Size Me,” among other top docs.
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These days, documentary is an expansive classification. “There’s a convergence of trends, evolving quickly from numerous quarters,” notes Sarah Lash, VP of acquisitions and co-productions at IFC Films. “Filmmakers are working with a much broader array of subject matter and styles within the doc genre.”
Sundance continues to present multiple aspects of the non-fiction genre. There are those that meet Sundance Institute prexy Robert Redford’s activist imperative for tackling sociopolitical issues not covered by mainstream media. Eugene Jarecki’s unblinking look at the U.S. military industrial complex in “Why We Fight” is a leading example.
Within the competitions, there are contempo, narrative-style efforts such as Greg Whiteley’s “New York Doll” and Rupert Murray’s “Unknown White Male.” And predicted to be crowd-pleasers: Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s “Murderball” and Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette’s “The Aristocrats.”
IFC’s Lash points to Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” for breaking the theatrical ice and “Fahrenheit 9/11” for dissolving it, as both general audiences and distribs have proven more receptive to docs.
“There’s a sense of unlimited possibilities, there’s more than just television,” says Marion Lipschutz, who co-directed competition entry “The Education of Shelby Knox.”
A five-year project, the doc wraps the abstract issue of sex education around the very personal story of Texan Shelby Knox and her parents. Already slated for a “P.O.V.” airdate on PBS, Lipschutz and co-helmer Rose Rosenblatt now also have additional distribution options to consider, including Internet-promoted DVD distribution and an arthouse versus broader theatrical release.
Despite proliferating distribution strategies, financing docs remains difficult. “In the doc world, the way funding goes, it seems like they want you to make your movie first and then they’ll fund you,” says Ellen Perry, whose “The Fall of Fujimori” also unspools in competition at Sundance. “Even if you do have a trailer and obviously had unparalleled access, it’s really hard to get money just on a paper proposal.”
“Fujimori,” an intimate portrait of Alberto Fujimori, the former Peruvian president who is now on Interpol’s most wanted list, was initially self-financed by private investors. A Sundance Institute grant allowed Perry to travel to Japan to interview the exiled leader.
British filmmaker Sean McAllister, whose “The Liberace of Baghdad” competes in the World Documentary section, had funds but no story when he journeyed to Baghdad under the auspices BBC’s “Storyville.” He found his subject right in the dining room of his hotel.
“Liberace” chronicles post-war Iraq through one man, pianist Samir Peter. Working as producer-director and mini-DV camera operator, McAllister’s lean approach to production was essential in the disintegrating environment.
“It got so dangerous, we were both at risk,” he explains of the eight-month-long shoot. Barring visa problems, McAllister hopes to bring Peter, once the most famous pianist in Iraq, to the festival.
Discovery Networks backed Werner Herzog’s mesmerizing “Grizzly Man,” the story of Alaskan grizzly bear advocate Timothy Treadwell, who was killed in 2003. Part nature doc and many parts character study, the film is central to the cabler’s efforts to get back to its roots. “We are a safe haven for docs and we want to propel that world,” says Discovery prexy Billy Campbell, crediting Sundance for giving diverse voices a venue.
In addition to Herzog, several other influential doc filmmakers have slots at the fest, including Frederick Wiseman (“The Garden” in Special Screenings), William Greaves (“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½” in Frontier), Steve James (“Reel Paradise” in Special Screenings”) and Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County, U.S.A.” in Sundance Collection).
Kopple will discuss her 1976 Oscar- winning doc at the Filmmaker Lodge (550 Main St.) on Jan. 28, while Herzog and Wiseman will take part in a “Visions of Reality” tete-a-tete at the Lodgon Jan. 26.