I’m always leery about documentaries made by celebrities. I’m not talking about people who are celebrities because of the docs — the Moores, Burnses and scant others who have name recognition because of their work — but rather the famous who jump in seemingly out of nowhere to make documentary films.
With Sundance 2012 bringing us the premiere this week of Ice-T’s Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, and Rory Kennedy’s documentary about her also not un-famous mother Ethel, I find myself with that vaguely sickening feeling that celebrities make documentaries because they are burnishing self-image, protecting or enhancing their brand, or sometimes doing a salvage job. Think Al Gore. Or Exit Through Gift Shop, 2010 Sundance pick that a) may not have been factually accurate, and b) did more to build the artist Banksy’s brand than all of his previous work, but, most terribly, c) probably inspired a string of maybe-not-so-true-true-story docs.
Documentary is likewise a marriage between art and something akin to the journalistic. But, and maybe it’s because of my own background in journalism, I lean toward the work of people who don’t make films about themselves, who explore a topic of consequence and who stay behind the camera.
I realize the horse left the barn two decades ago in the substantial form of Michael Moore. Seeing a filmmaker squarely in the frame was not new when Moore first appeared in Roger & Me, but it had never been done so successfully. While that begat people like Morgan Spurlock vomiting McDonald’s out his car window, it also brought the curious Sketches of Frank Gehry, in which the famous architect was profiled by his famous friend, Sydney Pollack. The shots of the longtime feature-film director Pollack (a man with armies of film crews at his beck and call) shooting Gehry handheld, while himself being shot by a presumed film crew, stay with me.
Too many celebrity documentaries are marked by the filmmaker spending more time in front of the camera than behind it, rarely asking very involved questions, instead offering their mediations on a topic, and at times emitting a whiff of rank self-promotion. When I hear of Johnny Depp making a documentary about Keith Richards, I don’t expect any closure on questions left unanswered by Richards’ own generally forthcoming autobiography (although Keith may well repeat his assertions about Mick Jagger’s genitalia).
Beware documentaries that try too nakedly to lure star power. Tabloid fixture Lindsay Lohan signed on for a 2010 BBC documentary on child trafficking, delicately entitled Lindsay Lohan’s Indian Journey, a film that was pitched as Lohan “investigating” the topic. Who could take it seriously? The film was greeted with shock, and disastrous ratings. Lohan, apparently unscathed, was back partying in LA in no time.
Celebrity docs may have hit their most egregious with the comedian Chris Rock’s Good Hair. Rock invited documentarian Regina Kimbell to screen her film about African-American hairstyles, My Nappy Roots. Some time later he came forward with his own documentary, not only on the same topic, but also sharing many elements with Kimbell’s film. She lost a lawsuit against him, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have every right to see his effort as piggybacking on hers. The comparison between the films is, to me, chilling.
Second on my list may be William Shatner’s The Captains, a documentary about playing the captain on TV’s “Star Trek.” The New York Times‘ Mike Hale’s dutiful review of the film is far better than the film itself: “Much of the fun of watching The Captains is waiting to see just how shameless a huckster and self-promoter Mr. Shatner can be. You don’t have to wait long.”
Taking the bronze is a yet-to-be-completed Juliette Lewis documentary, which makes the podium based simply on headlines from September like this one: “Juliette Lewis preps rock documentary on herself.” Exactly! But the articles back in September say she was aiming this film at Sundance 2012, something that has not come to pass, for good or for ill.
And a dishonorable mention must be made for the Casey Affleck-Joaquin Phoenix disaster I’m Still Here, which they first said was true, until it got an awful response, and then they said wasn’t true. When the nonfiction part begins to fade from nonfiction film, I am given pause.
Documentary film has given stars, who might have spent their time trying to get attention in other ways, a new avenue. No one says documentaries have to be completely objective, but can Ethel do anything but forward the Kennedy legacy? Will Something from Nothing, with its roadmap title, tell anything but rags-to-riches stories that positions rap, and rappers, in a favorable light? Maybe we’ll be surprised.
James Fair guest posts at Hope for For Film about the difference between being an amateur or a professional. His distinction is both economic and psychic; are we making money, but also:
Within filmmaking the common belief is that you are professional if you are paid and make a living from it, you are amateur if you don’t. But, working in a university, I meet many people who would argue that LITTLE of the film industry is ‘professional’, because it rarely requires examinations or formal training to work in many of the roles, which means that it isn’t strictly a profession at all, it is a ‘job’.
In other words, does it feel like a real job. But the economics of film are changing, especially documentary film, and thinking about what makes a pro is worthwhile. And being a pro, at anything you love, seems a worthy aspiration. Starting strictly on a balance-sheet perspective, and moving to the abstract, the questions might be such:
1) Am I making revenue directly from my films? Two key words here – revenue and directly. Business is a matter of revenue versus cost; if any money is coming into your account by having made the film, then you might make the case you’re a pro, even if it’s modest and the cost far outweighs it. Example: I spend $50,000 on my film and sell $30,000 in DVDs and screenings. I lose $20,000 – am I a pro? Does that change if my film costs $1,000 and I make back $100? On the other hand, if I spend $20,000 on the film, get into five film festivals, but then don’t get distribution, am I an amateur? This last question is moot, it would seem, because everybody can sell their film on DVDs or on the web. But the question remains how direct revenue determines whether you’re a pro.
2) Am I making a profit directly from my films? Profit, of course, is a whole ‘nother ballgame. Profit requires business sense and acumen that might be considered the mark of a true professional. Therefore: Let’s say I use my skills and experience to make a film for $20,000 that makes back $40,000 in revenue. Am I a pro now? I’ve just made $20,000. I must be – I’ll declare income on my tax return and by the IRS’s standards, I’m a pro. Now, let’s say I spend 2,000 hours making the film. That rates out to $10 an hour – babysitter money. Am I less of a pro because my hourly? Well, the fact is that if filmmaking is going to be your real deal, part of being a pro is making a film that has a cost/revenue structure that keeps me in business. On my most recent film, we are solidly in the black, having made the film inexpensively and having found an enthusiastic audience, mostly right now at paid screenings at universities, libraries and museums across the country. In the end, we’ll recover our costs and a healthy hourly rate. But if we’d been more daring and not thought as carefully about how we’d make money, does that make us less professional, even if less profitable?
3) Am I making money because of my films? Does making films that might not directly realize profit still bring in money from other sources? For example, my first documentary filmmaking effort (after years of magazine writing) was done for a budget of $7,000; I got a $3,000 grant during the process, got a $5,000 grant toward the end, and saw it play in a half-dozen festivals. It had a number of paid screenings, and a number of unpaid ones. And then afterwards put the DVD on Amazon’s Createspace for anyone who wanted it. Over four years I’ve sold a couple of hundred DVDs (I consider that OK for something that was a learning effort and for which I no longer spend any active time marketing) and my share of that has been about $2,000 more. So I made money directly. But at the university at which I’m a professor, I got a merit raise based on my non-academic work (the university has that fund to encourage us to do things such as make a film, then to bring that knowledge back to the students). And my teaching job leaves me 22 paid weeks free per year to do as I please, so the case might be made that my filmmaking is compensated at good pay as such (as are the books I’ve published, etc.). But my friends Doug and Susan run a film company in New York City that has an office, equipment, interns and so on. They sold a documentary to HBO and have had others in major film festivals. Are they more pro than I? Undoubtedly so.
4) Am I earning money as a result of my filmmaking? A friend forwarded me, for my opinion, a quote for a corporate-identity video her company was having made. The quote – $3,500 for about three day’s work, seemed reasonable, but also delivered the filmmaker a rather generous fee (about $100 an hour, I guessed). I told my friend that this quote seemed the going rate. “I could get somebody cheaper,” she said, “but these guys make documentary films and they’ve won awards at film festivals.” Therefore, the work that hadn’t likely made them money had gotten them the bid on the corporate work. To borrow some marketing terms, professional filmmakers often use their personal work as a “loss leader” to create a “cash cow” of corporate work that keeps them going. Even if they made nothing on their documentaries, you can make the case they’re pros. The documentaries become their professional calling card (and if their bloodbath/horror/goth film that made the midnight show at the local film festival is their calling card, I doubt they’d get the job – that stuff, to me, screams “amateur”). Now, keep in mind that a “pro” used to be defined as “someone who owns the equipment.” A lot of jobs used to go to less-than-professional characters who had at least invested in the gear. Now anybody can get the gear, so the pro sells skills and outcomes. The results of one’s own filmmaking efforts have a lot to do with sustained income from other sources. That might include being a cinematographer, or editor on somebody else’s project, but it goes toward being a pro. That includes weddings, events and other work that derives from the skills – there’s no shame in honest work, and pros know that.
5) Do I feel, act and talk like a pro? I remember when I was a young reporter at The Denver Post, the top pay rate was referred to as “journeyman” rate. I liked that phrase, the notion of moving past one’s apprenticeship and finding some level of professional knowledge and comportment, of how one “goes about his business.” I think a person becomes a pro when one abandons pipe dreams and best-case daydreams and just does the work, and does so with a level of confidence, control and purpose. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be open to great things resulting, but when the work becomes the value rather than the outcome, it seems to me that this is when you really can call yourself a pro. That, in the end, f goes toward a state of mind and a self-perception, and not strictly toward dollars and cents.
I’ll leave you back with James Fair:
Ultimately, I believe it is our human nature to want to classify things and identify our position within society. It is a way of understanding both others and ourselves. I am a ‘nobody’ filmmaker creates a distinction from a ‘somebody’ filmmaker. Therefore their situations are different. I am a ‘professional’ and you are an ‘amateur’ means you are not qualified to understand me. The titles position us within society and even within this community that Ted has created. Even worse, the connotations of these titles have the potential to divide us – the ‘amateur’ thinks they makes films for the ‘love of the art’ whilst the ‘professional’ is a ‘sell-out’. Andrew Keen’s book ‘The Cult of the Amateur’ attacks amateurism for being sub-par quality, unpaid and unqualified. However, I’ve seen great quality stuff from unpaid people and I’ve seen sub-par quality stuff from qualified people. Our lives are more complex than these labels give us credit for.
Screen Daily reports that three films chosen for Sundance have been sold even before they’ve screened, which supports the view that distributors are showing less interest in using festivals as an opportunity to gauge audience reaction before bidding on a film.
SD writes that one of those films is a documentary on famed B-Movie actor Roger Corman:
HBO has picked up all US rights to James Marsh’s Project Nim, while SPC has acquired North America and territories on Take Shelter and A&E Indiefilms took television rights to the Roger Corman documentary.
It’s almost like the Sundance Film Festival has started, with all the advance acquisition activity. A&E IndieFilm just acquired TV rights to Corman’s World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel, the documentary about low-budget independent icon Roger Corman. A&E becomes an investor in a film that will still be shopped for feature rights, much the way that A&E was a ground floor participant in The Tillman Story, the documentary acquired for theatrical release by The Weinstein Company after its Sundance premiere. Corman will be on hand for Friday night’s world premiere in Park City.
Directed by Alex Stapleton, Corman’s World focuses on Corman’s prolific film output, and also careers that launched in his low-budget factory that include James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Francis Coppola, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese. Many of them tell their stories in the documentary.
The Wild & Scenic Film Festival just concluded in Nevada City, California, but it will be re-emerging in February when the Rhode Island environmental organization Save The Bay sponsors a round of screenings locally.
Wild & Scenic describes itself this way:
Considered the largest film festival of its kind, this year’s films combine stellar filmmaking, beautiful cinematography and first-rate storytelling to inform, inspire and ignite solutions and possibilities to restore the earth and human communities while creating a positive future for the next generation. Festival-goers can expect to see Award-winning films about nature, community activism, adventure, conservation, water, energy and climate change, wildlife, environmental justice, agriculture, Native American and indigenous cultures.
More festivals are packaging “road versions” and in this case Wild & Scenic comes to RI in a streamlined version:
Wild & Scenic Film Festival 2011
For the 3rd year in a row, Save The Bay brings you some of the most popular short films from the Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival — the largest of its kind in North America! This year the films will be shown over four days in three local venues:
Thursday, February 24, 6-8 pm (doors open at 5:30)
La Grua Center, 32 Water St., #7 Stonington Common, Stonington, CT
Friday, February 25, 6-8 pm (doors open at 5:30)
Jane Pickens Theatre, 49 Touro St., Newport
Saturday, February 26, 6-8 pm (doors open at 5:30)
Save The Bay Center, 100 Save The Bay Drive, Providence
For a lot of films, that rejection from Sundance is the first true reality check in the process – maybe not everybody will love your film, maybe it won’t be a no-brainer for the Academy Awards, and maybe the money you put into it won’t be as easy to make back. Certainly, there are other great festivals, but Sundance often represents the first No.
It’s always better to go at it more sensibly. Real professionals, we think, do the best work they can and then enter these top festivals just to be sure they won’t get in.
For fiction/dramatized films (non-documentaries), getting passed over by top festivals is a blow. The number of such indie films that see much play without festival buzz is small. But documentaries, thankfully are different. There’s plenty of life in docs without any festivals.
Jon Reiss had a post earlier this week on what to do if you didn’t get in to Sundance, and it was testament to the fact that the film game has changed immeasurably in the last decade. The piece is long and well worth reading; in part, he says,
Getting into a premiere film festival is not a distribution and marketing strategy. It is common knowledge now that only a small percentage of films that go to Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Cannes, Berlin etc end up with traditional all rights deals that make any kind of financial sense. 98% of filmmakers at least still end up being responsible for the distribution and marketing of their film – even if they obtain a distributor partner hear or there for specific rights. The less you mentally rely on what I call the Festival Acquisition Model, the better off you will be.
Jon goes onto lay out the notion that self-distribution is possible now because of the Web, and that the old notion of festivals being the gateway to distributing was always overrated – most films that have played Sundance never got a distribution deal.
That goes toward a post by Brian Newman at Springboard Media, who has advice for the few who did get into Sundance, with the same message that festivals don’t guarantee a wider audience. Filmmakers who made the Sundance cut are being chased by a variety of distributors and would-be distributors who aren’t necessarily going to do the job better than you can do:
Determine what you are capable of doing on your own. What can you do on your own – given your resources in time and money? Plot out what that would look like. You now have a Plan A. Pick any potential team mates (publicist, etc) based on this plan, but go in with an open mind. If you do get an offer, it is Plan B. If Plan B is better than your Plan A, then you might take it. You also now have something to negotiate against – if they aren’t going to do something you can do on your own….carve out those rights. You can only do this, however, if you actually have a plan.
We know filmmakers who sold to a distributor only to see that distributor sit on their film or not have a decent plan for it, or get more interested in another acquistion they feel is worth more of their time. Sundance draws the same sort of hopes from these would-be industry players, who think if they can score a Sundance film that they can sit back and let it make money for them without much effort.
The change at hand from Netflix, iTunes, Amazon and other ways of finding documentary films means that the festival route is not always a given. And as we’ve noted before, festivals seek films of general interest while documentaries usually succeed financially by connecting with focused audiences. In that way, as Reiss says,
In sum – more filmmakers are finding distribution and marketing paths for their films (in other words – connecting with audiences) outside of the Festival Acquisition System than are doing it inside of this system.
The Sundance Film Festival has announced the documentary films that will show in competition. Look at the numbers: 16 films picked out of 841 entries.
The films are:
U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
This year’s 16 films were selected from 841 submissions. Each is a world premiere.
Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (Director: Michael Rapaport) – The story of the rise and influence of one of the most innovative and influential hip hop bands of all time, the collective known as A Tribe Called Quest.
BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer’s Journey (Director: Constance Marks) – The Muppet Elmo is one of the most beloved characters among children across the globe. Meet the unlikely man behind the puppet – the heart and soul of Elmo – Kevin Clash.
Buck (Director: Cindy Meehl) – In a story about the power of non-violence, master horse trainer Buck Brannaman uses principles of respect and trust to tame horses and inspire their human counterparts.
Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology (Director: Tiffany Shlain; Screenwriters: Tiffany Shlain, Ken Goldberg, Carlton Evans and Sawyer Steele) -Connected is an exhilarating stream-of-consciousness ride through the interconnectedness of humankind, nature, progress and morality at the dawn of the 21st century. For centuries we’ve been declaring independence. With insight, curiosity, and humor, the film explores whether it’s time to declare our interdependence.
Crime After Crime (Director: Yoav Potash) – Debbie Peagler is a survivor of brutal domestic violence incarcerated for her connection to the murder of her abuser. Two decades later a pair of rookie land-use attorneys cut their teeth on her case, attracting global attention to the troubled intersection of domestic violence and criminal justice.
Hot Coffee (Director: Susan Saladoff) – Following subjects whose lives have been devastated by an inability to access the courts, this film shows that many long-held beliefs about our civil justice system have been paid for by corporate America.
How to Die in Oregon (Director: Peter D. Richardson) – In 1994 Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. How to Die in Oregon gently enters the lives of terminally ill Oregonians to illuminate the power of death with dignity.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (Director: Marshall Curry) – The Earth Liberation Front is a radical environmental group that the FBI calls America’s ‘number one domestic terrorist threat.’ Daniel McGowan, an ELF member, faces life in prison for two multi-million dollar arsons against Oregon timber companies. But who is really to blame?
The Last Mountain (Director: Bill Haney; Screenwriters: Bill Haney and Peter Rhodes) – A coal mining corporation and a tiny community vie for the last great mountain in Appalachia in a battle for the future of energy that affects us all.
Miss Representation (Director: Jennifer Siebel Newsom; Screenwriters: Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Jessica Congdon) – Miss Representation uncovers how American mainstream media’s limited and disparaging portrayals of women contribute to the under-representation of women in power positions – creating another generation of women defined by youth, beauty and sexuality, and not by their capacity as leaders.
Page One: A year inside the New York Times (Director: Andrew Rossi; Screenwriters: Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi) – Unprecedented access to the New York Times newsroom yields a complex view of the transformation of a media landscape fraught with both peril and opportunity.
The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Directors: Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion) – A brutal warlord who murdered thousands during Liberia’s horrific 14-year civil war renounces his violent past and reinvents himself as an Evangelist, facing those he once terrorized.
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (Director: Jon Foy) – An urban mystery unfurls as one man pieces together the surreal meaning of hundreds of cryptic tiled messages that have been appearing in city streets across the U.S. and South America.
Sing Your Song (A film by Susanne Rostock) – Most people know the lasting legacy of Harry Belafonte, the entertainer; this film unearths his significant contribution to and his leadership in the civil rights movement in America and to social justice globally.
Troubadours (Director: Morgan Neville) – A musical journey tracing the lives and careers of James Taylor and Carole King, pillars of the California singer/songwriter scene, which converged in and around LA’s Troubadour Club in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
We Were Here (Director: David Weissman) – A deep and reflective look at the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco and how individuals rose to the occasion during the first years of this unimaginable crisis.
WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
This year’s 12 films were selected from 796 international documentary submissions.
An African Election / Switzerland, U.S.A. (Director: Jarreth Merz) – The 2008 presidential elections in Ghana, West Africa, serve as a backdrop for this feature documentary that looks behind the scenes at the complex, political machinery of a third-world democracy struggling to avoid civil war and establish stability for good. North American Premiere
The Bengali Detective / India, U.S.A., United Kingdom (Director: Phil Cox) – Chubby, dance-obsessed private-detective Rajesh Ji and his motley band of helpers tackle poisonings, adultery and the occasional murder on the frenzied streets of Kolkata. World Premiere
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 / Sweden, U.S.A. (Director: Göran Olsson) – From 1967 to 1975, Swedish journalists chronicled the Black Power movement in America. Combining that 16mm footage, undiscovered until now, with contemporary audio interviews, this film illuminates the people and culture that fueled change and brings the movement to life anew. World Premiere
Family Portrait in Black and White / Canada (Director: Julia Ivanova) – In a small Ukrainian town, Olga Nenya, raises 16 black orphans amidst a population of Slavic blue-eyed blondes. Their stories expose the harsh realities of growing up as a bi-racial child in Eastern Europe. World Premiere
The Flaw / United Kingdom (Director: David Sington) – Within a few months in 2008, several American financial institutions failed, and before you knew it the U.S.A. was in the red. An imaginative blend of archive, animation and personal stories delivers a devastating indictment of the unfettered capitalism which has led to crippling, catastrophic income inequality in the land of the free. North American Premiere
The Green Wave (Irans grüner Sommer) / Germany (Director: Ali Samadi Ahadi) – Animated blogs and tweets tell the story of democracy under fire and hopes dashed as protesters are arrested, tortured and raped during Iran’s tumultuous elections of June 2009.North American Premiere
Hell and Back Again / U.S.A., United Kingdom (Director: Danfung Dennis) – Told through the eyes of one Marine from the start of his 2009 Aghanistan tour to his distressing return and rehabilitation in the U.S., we witness what modern “unconventional” warfare really means to the men who are fighting it. World Premiere
KNUCKLE / Ireland, United Kingdom (Director: Ian Palmer) – An epic 12-year journey into the brutal and secretive world of Irish Traveler bare-knuckle fighting, this film follows a history of violent feuding between rival clans. World Premiere
Position Among the Stars (Stand Van De Sterren) / Netherlands (Director: Leonard Retel Helmrich) – The effects of globalization in Indonesia’s rapidly changing society ripple into the life of a poor Christian woman living in the slums of Jakarta with her Muslim sons and teenage granddaughter. International Premiere
Project Nim / United Kingdom (Director: James Marsh) – From the Oscar-winning team behind Man on Wire comes the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who was taught to communicate with language as he was raised and nurtured like a human child. World Premiere
Senna / United Kingdom (Director: Asif Kapadia; Screenwriter: Manish Pandey) – The story of the legendary racing driver and Brazilian hero Ayrton Senna takes us on the ultimate journey of what it means to become the greatest when faced with the constant possibility of death. North American Premiere
Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure / Australia, U.S.A. (Director: Matthew Bate) – When two friends tape-recorded the fights of their violently noisy neighbors, they accidentally created one of the world’s first ‘viral’ pop-culture sensations. World Premiere
Getting your documentary to its rightful audience is a process that couldn’t be more different than doing so for a fiction film. Topic and subject are what docs do, actors and directors and made-up stories are what fiction films do. But from what I can see, people often tend to approach distribution as if they are one and the same.
In the graphic below, the “Pyramid of Audience,” there is no spot for the film-festival audience. The reason, to me, is that film festivals are a completely different consideration, and might best be represented as a bubble off in the distance.
In Part I, I made the case that finding audience for documentaries starts with identifying those people who are in love with the topic you’re exploring in your film. These people tend to group either formally (such as conventions, conferences or clubs) or informally (through social media or a loose web of communication), and the “Insanely Interested” and “Rising Passion” segments that will, or should, be the easiest sell for your work, the people who come flocking.
So it’s interesting that so many documentary filmmakers, rather than making efforts to find and serve this core audience, spend most of their time trying to sing and dance for one of the most fickle and not-always-useful audiences of all: The committees and programmers of film festivals.
This is not to say film festivals aren’t wonderful things. It’s fun to get your film in one, and you can make a vacation around it and meet other filmmakers. But as a way of finding your audience, you may be wasting effort you could be using to get the film out.
Film festivals are a traditional part of the formula that are being challenged by the changing times. While landing in a big festival such as Toronto or Sundance will reap wonderful benefits, there are thousands of festivals out there that will, frankly, do you no good at all. Getting into Toronto or Sundance is like winning the lottery – yes, the quality of your film matters, but so do a myriad of other factors. Here I’m speaking of the other 99 percent of festivals out there, and what the cost/benefit ratio may be.
From a business point of view, the festival decision carries up and downs.
The typical film festival funds itself by your entry fees, grants, sponsors and ticket sales. If they take your film they will charge at the door and you won’t see a dime of that. Unless you are fortunate enough to have your film be an opening-night or featured work (and that decision itself is not always about being the best film), you’re not unlikely to see your film shown on a weeknight to a room of 20 to 30 people.
The upside is getting, by virtue of the festival appearance, a perceived stamp of approval, as well as some publicity and response from what still might be called “traditional media.” Getting a positive review of your film from the Los Angeles Times or the Boston Globe means, in essence, it’s been taken seriously.
In theory, that kind of coverage can get your film in front of the large and less-defined “general” audience (something we’ll get to in Part III of this series).
But even getting to that point means you’re putting your film through a bottleneck that moves away from getting to your core audience, the one that will potentially represent the most revenue for your work.
Film festivals, in short, have a different agenda, and different tastes.
1) Festivals tend to be deeply trend-driven. The success of “An Inconvenient Truth” launched a thousand such ships of environmental awareness, Michael Moore’s success begat a thousand imitators (including successful ones such as Morgan Spurlock) and lighter, easier equipment on the market allowed for more of the “live action” documentaries that I believe are direct offspring of, gulp, reality television. If you’re chasing trends as a filmmaker, you’re competing with every other film chasing the same trend, and the funny thing about trends is they often come to an abrupt halt. Ask any festival programmer and they can tell you, sometimes wearily, what this year’s topic-du-jour is. But yet at the front end, they often feed that.
2) Festivals, for the most part, rely on volunteer judging for the early rounds, often by nonprofessionals and often by very young screeners (aka interns). They bring to the mix certain perceptions, certain biases, and certain responses (I’ve been a festival judge, and can attest to the way that pile of DVDs waiting to be viewed can change your reaction to them). With the sheer numbers of festival entries going on, even at small festivals, it’s a fair question to wonder how many times any entry actually gets viewed, or at least in its entirety. The “stamp of approval” that festivals bring often come through a process akin to Upton Sinclair’s sausage factory. Entering such a crapshoot can cost you $50 to $100 a pop, on average. Spending $50 to enter Toronto can be justified as “I just want to be completely sure they don’t want my film,” but dropping good money to the Whatever Film Fest without any assurance anyone in the judging pool will get around to fully watching your film is another. And when I consider the relative youth of so many film-festival volunteers and staffers, I note that when I went to see “Exit Through The Gift Shop” at an art cinema in suburban Boston, not one person in the audience appeared to be under the age of 40. So even the “general” theatrical audiences you seek can be completely different than the people at the festival who make decisions.
3) Festivals may want quality, but they need audience. The opening film at Toronto this year was a musical about hockey. I’m an old former college hockey player, and even I would likely not go to the theater to see a musical about hockey. But the choice makes perfect sense locally – it’s not about the sport, it’s about the local culture. It’s also about branding TIFF as having local roots. Festivals, even Toronto, depend on bringing in the locals, so films perceived by festivals as being of local interest have a better shot at being selected and showcased. The problem with documentary audiences is that they often tend to be organized not geographically but by interest. You can have a pretty good audience spread out around the country, or world, and the place you find them together is at their gatherings, not in a particular town. Documentaries with a focused topic will do better laterally than in depth in any particular location.
4) Publicity you might get from festivals is shrinking. The changes in the news media mean that the old imperatives are that: old. Newspapers and magazines have seen shrinking ad revenue, leading to shrinking news hole, leading to shrinking staffs. Fewer and fewer papers and magazine employ film critics, or writers devoted to covering film. Therefore, the herd is driven ever more to those fewer critics who are left. Or the writer covering your film knows very little about film. The coverage afforded to film festivals anywhere by their local media is tending to drop. And even with the coverage, fewer people read them. (As noted in Part I, bloggers and websites provide narrower coverage, and often more enthusiastic coverage, which goes back to the notion of focused audiences).
In summary, it seems time-consuming and costly to try to reach your Insanely Interested audience – the ones who will be most likely attend your film, view it digitally, or buy the DVD – through the broad, diffuse, fee-driven nature of festivals. There are so many more direct ways of getting to your primary audience, often people who don’t know Sundance from a sunburn and don’t much care if it played there, that the festival can simply be a side trip. If you believe your documentary has the potential for a massive general audience, a select few festivals can move you forward on that journey and are worth trying. But that may account for less than 1% of all documentaries. Films reported on here, such as “Food Matters” and “Beyond Biba” have done very well without putting festivals in the mix – and demonstrated you don’t need a festival for your film to be legitimated. To run aground on dashed hopes of “prestige” festivals may deny the real audience for your film what they want: your film.
More filmmakers, I think, are looking at festivals less as a necessity and more of a fun side trip. They can be some of the most fun you’ve had, sometimes you get comped a hotel room, and you get to chat up people who enjoy doing what you do. Getting in a bigger festival can afford you publicity benefits. But none of that is directly getting you to the audience you can find for your documentary. More next week.
There’s some real star power in the Toronto International Film Festival’s documentary film selections for 2010. Alex Gibney, Errol Morris, Charles Ferguson and Werner Herzog are just a few of the filmmakers; subjects include Eliot Spitzer, Bruce Springsteen and an orchestra of Mumbai street children performing “The Sound of Music.”
Gibney chronicles Spitzer’s fall from the governorship of New York in “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” (Magnolia Pictures).
Springsteen and the E Street Band are featured in Thom Zimny’s “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
Herzog, always intriguing, premieres “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a 3D portrait of the Chauvet caves of southern France.
War and global politics as ever figure in Toronto’s doc lineup, including a world premiere for Norwegian director Vibeke Lokkegerg’s “Tears of Gaza,” a portrait of Israel’s 2008-2009 bombings of Gaza and its impact on local civilians, British director Kim Longinotto’s “Pink Saris,” about a female enforcer of local justice on the streets of Uttar Pradesh, India, and an international premiere for Israeli director Shlomo Eldar’s “Precious Life,” about an Israeli pediatrician and a Palestinian mother balancing emotions and rival politics as they try to treat a baby with an incurable genetic disease.
And besides the Springsteen biopic, Toronto also booked music-themed docs like Sarah McCarthy’s “The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical,” about a group of young slum-dwellers in Mumbai, India, performing “The Sound of Music” with a classical orchestra, and an international premiere for Paul Clarke’s “Mother of Rock: Lillian Roxon,” about a major player in New York’s 1960s and 1970s punk scene.
Elsewhere, Toronto booked “Inside Job,” an investigation into Wall Street’s 2009 financial meltdown from Charles Ferguson (“No End in Sight”) that bowed in Cannes and is set for an upcoming Sony Pictures Classics theatrical release.
The documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” has been picking up steam since it premiered at Sundance in January. It’s now on the festival circuit – this week at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival - and the reviews have been numerous and positive. Here’s a quote from Rivers in an interview with Philly.com that does speak the truth about the documentary art:
“How many stupid documentaries have you seen where you don’t learn anything, and it’s all about this person who is wonderful and here are nine celebrities to tell you that? If you want to see that, turn on the Biography Channel.”
In fact, of course, most of those celebrity documentaries don’t even get access to the star. There’s sort of a distant-god feel to them, whereas the Rivers film is almost too close for comfort. And to some degree, it’s testament to how the dawn of the reality show has really continued to influence the documentary, not always in good ways.
The piece says that Rivers asked that only one part of the doc be cut – her daughter Melissa speaking angrily about the 1987 suicide of her father, and Rivers’ husband, Edgar, who had been the butt of many Rivers jokes as she clawed up the comedic ladder.
But we also suspect that getting Rivers to be allowed to be seen bluntly and not always flatteringly wasn’t a huge leap – her comedy has always been that raw, and the film is clear on how far Rivers will go for fame and fortune, or at least steady work (including doing publicity for the film).
In an interview at Queersighted.com, the filmmakers, director Ricki Stern and co-director Annie Sundberg, speak to the goals of the film.
Ricki Stern: I knew Joan through family, so I had an easy introduction to her. When I was initially thinking about her, I was thinking that she was this kind of pop icon, exposed media personality, who people – the younger generation – really did not know regarding her history as a female comedian and how groundbreaking she was. She sort of morphed into this “Geico commercial” or red-carpet personality. It was really not what Joan Rivers genius was about. I also knew she was turning 75 so it was about the idea of what it would be like to be with an aging performer who’s still working at it everyday and works harder than anyone else I know at keeping in the limelight.
The third annual Philadelphia Independent Film Festival starts Wednesday and runs through next Sunday, offering dozens of shorts and docs, features, music films, cult fare, and more. With five venues in Northern Liberties and the premiere of the Martin Sheen-narrated Return to El Salvador at the Ritz East, PIFF is designed to bring filmmakers and filmgoers together, exploring political, social, and artistic themes.A few highlights: “The Making of an Anthem,” a documentary short about Philly music impresario Kenny Gamble’s “I Am an American” project featuring Patti LaBelle and the Temple University Symphony and Choir; For the Sake of the Song: The Story of Anderson Fair, about the storied Austin, Tex., music venue that nurtured budding singer/songwriters Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams; Auf Wiedersehen, ‘Til We Meet Again, a personal, post-9/11 doc, and a mini-animation fest, featuring eight ‘toon shorts.