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Issue documentaries heat up

MipDoc full of controversy

Thanks to folks like Al Gore and Michael Moore, controversial documentaries are expected to be hot at the upcoming MipDoc in Cannes. The two-day sales bazaar unfolds this weekend on the eve of the all-inclusive Mip TV trade show — and a potpourri of U.S. players are wending their way to the Riviera resort to pitch their wares.

From Barcelona to Bangkok, watercooler conversations these days are as likely to center around global warming (think “An Inconvenient Truth”) or general anti-Americanism (think “Fahrenheit 9/11”) as around who did what to whom on “CSI.” So U.S. distribs of all stripes are betting issue-oriented docs will appeal to younger demos worldwide.

Right now the most highly sought-after doc is arguably Gore’s Oscar-winning eco-expose, which is being licensed to pay and free TV outlets by Paramount.

Par international TV prexy Hal Richardson told Daily Variety that “An Inconvenient Truth” has had a number of successful theatrical releases abroad and will soon be available to air on pay TV outlets abroad, including Sky TV in the U.K. On the free TV side in the U.K., Richardson has not yet closed a deal.

“The doc is timely, and there is indeed a lot of interest abroad in the global-warming issue. It’s a great property to have,” Richardson said.

Sibling distrib CBS Paramount Intl. TV, meanwhile, will be selling “Shame,” an equally provocative doc made for Showtime Stateside. This 90-minute feature focuses on the mistreatment of women in Pakistan, by tracing how one determined peasant named Mukhtaran fought the system and managed to set up a model crisis center for abused women.

U.S. suppliers, both big and small, are hoping that the competition among niche channels overseas, many of them now catering to nonfiction fare, will encourage their program buyers to step up and pay more than the modest sums traditionally forked out for nonfiction fare.

Among the smaller companies is Cinema Libre, a four-year-old outfit based in L.A. and run by a transplanted Frenchman. Outfit makes feature-length docs with contentious themes. It will make its debut on the Croisette with several provocative titles in tow.

“Now & Later” explores America’s obsession with profits over pleasure, as well as the country’s high tolerance for violence, both in media and real life. Directed by the company’s principal, Philippe Diaz, it could entice buyers who are convinced that America has gone to the dogs.

Company is also fielding “Progress vs. Poverty,” which examines the roots of poverty and how the Northern half of the globe has allegedly conspired to keep the Southern half down. That doc was inspired by John Perkins’ “Confessions of an Economic Hitman,” and follows the author as he goes from one poor country to another to examine why they are still in such financial straits.

“More and more, people are looking for TV to provide things beyond just sitcoms and soaps,” Diaz told Daily Variety.

With Cinema Libre having made its name selling theatrical rights to Robert Greenwald’s “Outfoxed” several years ago, Diaz said getting involved in the international TV markets was a no-brainer.

“Things have changed so much in this biz: Windows are all shifting and collapsing, so now it can make sense to premiere things first on TV, or on DVD, or even online. We can be much more creative in our release patterns.”

As part of its expansion plans, Cinema Libre has hired Andrew Schreiber, former prexy-CEO of Tartan Video, to expand homevideo and foreign sales.

Other Yank players will be on hand for MipDoc to flog nonfiction programming in other genres. According to French-based research outfit Mediametrie, an average 18% of programming aired worldwide now falls into the nonfiction category.

Intl. Broadcast Communications, a five-year-old company headed by Yank Jon Helmrich, will debut two historical docs about a time-tested theme that seems to have new resonance today in Europe: “Surviving Auschwitz” and “Defying Hitler.” They’ll be flanked by the more U.S.-centric doc “Time and Chance: Gerald Ford’s Appointment With History.”

The trio of docs, which were exec produced by Ken Kolbe and distributed through PBS across the U.S., have nabbed a number of awards. Helmrich said that docs are working bigtime abroad, and he thinks his three new ones boast “timeless” appeal.

Another doc purveyor, Connecticut-based CableReady, will be bringing four new series to the Cannes Croisette. Among them are “Micro Killers,” about lethal viruses, and “The Secret Bible,” which tries to debunk myths surrounding the medieval Knights Templar.

“The demand for factual programming about science, history and cultural topics, especially provocative takes on things, is rapidly expanding around the world,” said Cable Ready prexy-CEO Gary Lico.

No one wanted to discuss license fees for documentaries abroad, but once paltry sums — typically a channel in a major territory might fork out just $20,000 for a 90-minute doc — have risen substantially in the last couple of years.

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