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The Fate of Documentary Film - The precarious position of documentarians


- The earliest films were all documentaries. Symply by pointing a camera at it, these moving pictures made everyday life seem incredible. Then, documentaries were relegated to wartime newsreels and exotic travelogues. It took the creation of reality television programing to revitalize the genre.

While there is debate about when, exactly, the first film screening occurred, there is no arguing its genre. Whether the Lumiere brothers 1895 Exiting the Factory or Louis Le Prince 1888 Roundhay Garden Scene or the Edison workers undated camera test Monkeyshines No. 1, the earliest films were all documentaries. Simply by pointing a camera at it, these moving pictures made everyday life seem incredible.

But the expense of film stock and the enormous popularity of the infant fictional film invariably led to the creation of movie stars and the entrenched studio system, where every variable from setting to theater projection could be easily controlled for maximum efficiency and a substantive return on investment. Documentaries were relegated to wartime newsreels and exotic travelogues.

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The invention of videotape in 1956 nearly revived the documentary with cheaper films and a more expendable stock. But viewers were not too keen on the experimental films of the ’60s. In the end, it took the creation of reality television programing to revitalize the genre. Using video stock meant hours of footage could be taken at relatively low cost, and without actors to pay, the programing quickly became a favorite. The widespread distribution of reality TV made for a public primed to accept real life (or what passes as real life) as incredible entertainment once more.

In fact, the meteoric rise of reality television almost paralleled the increasing prominence of Michael Moore’s invasive brand of nonfiction filmmaking. COPS first aired in the spring of 1989, the same year as Moore’s Roger & Me, which proved to be the most successful documentary in American history at the time of its theatrical run. Charlie Parsons dreamed up Survivor in 1992, which came to the U.S. in 2000, around the same time as the wildly popular Big Brother. Moore released Bowling for Columbine in 2002, which surpassed his earlier film at the box office, brought down an Oscar and catapulted Moore onto the international scene. However you feel about his films personally, Moore undoubtedly paved the way for Exit Through The Gift Shop [+see also:
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, March of the Penguins [+see also:
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, Supersize Me and An Inconvenient Truth.

But most first-time filmmakers don’t enjoy the proud reception Moore received from the American public. “At first it was [a struggle] because I didn't know anything about film distribution,” explains Susan Polis Schutz, a favorite documantarian at PBS. “There aren't many outlets for non fiction documentaries.” Luckily for her, she fell into an excellent relationship with KPBS, the San Diego PBS station, which has since distributed all of her films. Between March and May of this year, her latest Over 90 and Loving It aired in almost every major city nationwide. Cheap, professional-grade equipment enables Polis Schutz to finance her own films from the profits of her previous endeavors.

Most directors are not so lucky. Traditionally, the festival circuit is the funnel to theatrical distribution. But like a funnel, this method enables only a fated few to make it to the marquees. The Internet offers a direct pipeline to viewers without relying on the mercy of big time distributors and movie houses. The complete democratization of technology, coupled with the prevalence of YouTube and its analogues, provides filmmakers a ready way to self-distribute their films.

“Obviously, the Internet will help,” Battle for Brooklyn director David Beilinson clarifies. “But the problem is that the filmmakers don’t get paid. The main thing is to figure out how to get filmmakers money so that they can continue to make films and still make them available.” While fundraising though online platforms like Kickstarter can make for a solid funding base, investors are wary of projects without a guaranteed outcome. Like their studio forebears, capital wants a controlled environment, including a bias towards material. Unlike Moore, most documentarians set out to find the truth and then tell its story. It’s a gray zone—one in which investors aren’t too comfortable. “But,” as Beilinson believes, “in that gray zone is where great work gets made.”

The conundrum is clear: It is easier than ever to make a good documentary film, but just as hard to reach an audience in a way that makes a profit. How can a filmmaker make it in this post-millennial environment?

Jonathan Sehring, president of Sundance Selects/IFC Entertainment, doesn’t believe the Internet is the future. “The web isn’t really a destination. The web is millions and millions of destinations. Even something as successful as Netflix and their recommendation engine, it’s still not easy to build an audience for a documentary.” Sehring strongly believes that only sites of consumption that are a destination—theaters, television or VOD—can offer indie filmmakers a taste of commercial success.

But as the head of a fairly big-time distribution house (in fact, the Sundance Selects label was created because of Robert Redford’s passion for documentary), Sehring might have a bit of a bias. For him, in order to build an audience and “rise to the top,” a filmmaker must work “hand in hand with a distributor.” But this relationship will not result in a huge marketing campaign. Sehring admits that in a documentary, “we look for something that will appeal to an audience that has a core following anyway.” In this ideal scenario, “you can do a lot of grassroots marketing” for the film, rather than spending the big bucks on promotional material to attract a new following.

Gideon Lichfield, curator of the Economist Film Project on PBS, agrees. “You have to be good at everything,” he explains. “It’s no longer just about the film itself, it’s about the whole process that goes into the making of it, the funding of it, the distribution of it and the promotion of it, because as a filmmaker you have to do all of those things probably to a greater extent than you used to.” Filmmakers must market themselves to the Economist Film Project in order to earn the funds to make a 6-8 minute cut for television distribution. While the opportunity to be showcased on PBS is a rare one, Lichfield’s strategy puts the onus on the filmmaker to cater his material to the project in order to win distribution.

So where does one turn to not compromise content or integrity? Nick Shimkin, co-founder of the three-year-old Kings County Cinema Society, believes that Brooklyn’s burgeoning film culture may provide the answer for local documentarians. The increasing number of microcinemas, film collectives, DIY Theaters and festivals like UnionDocs, IndieScreen, Spectacle Theater, Brooklyn Film Festival and BAMcinemaFest signify a growth in both demand and production of local indie film. And it’s not just a rash of new venues. Groups like the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective allow filmmakers to get valuable peer feedback for work still in progress, before they ever try to secure distribution. While Shimkin acknowledges that the Internet is the future, he still believes in what he calls “the collective viewing experience.” Something about a dark room and a rapt crowd makes a movie worthwhile. For this reason, prior to monetizing a film via the Internet, Shimkin would “like to think that there’s still a place for them in the theatrical setting.”

It all seems to come down to marketing. Unbidden, almost every person I spoke to for this article brought up self-marketing as the primary factor behind the success of a documentary film. It is only a blessed few films that can make it through mainstream channels and specials like PBS’ POV Series or OWN Network’s new Film Club. Most must fight the masses on hosting sites like SnagFilms or OpenIndie. For the first time, I’m seeing self-distributed titles come across my desk. But this is by no means an easy route to take.

Even if funding is secured, the film is well made and people would be interested in seeing it, it may just come down to luck. JL Aronson, the director of Last Summer at Coney Island, had to approach distributors himself, finally signing IndiePix on board. For Aronson, being an independent documentary filmmaker now means that “you also have to be a marketer… so by the time your film shows up somewhere in the bowels of iTunes, you really know who your audience is and how to alert them to the fact that your film can be downloaded.” Andy Schupak, a partner in streaming website Festival-of-Films, agrees. “In the old days, you probably had a market to reach the distributor, but today you’re going directly to the end user. So you have to figure out how to market to them.”

Reaching through the web directly to the viewer is an extremely new concept, one that nobody has yet mastered. Popular YouTube users craft their content around what will eventually “go viral,” but documentarians have, for the most part, avoided the allure of the fame and easy funding that comes along with compromised content. The democratization of technology means that quite suddenly, truly amazing documentary films can be made for the price of a used car. Hollywood’s exclusive ownership of filmmaking infrastructure is crumbling. Like in the pivotal technological transitions that have come before, the fate of documentary film will ultimately rest in the eyes of the viewers. Unfortunately, right now many films are getting lost between production to consumption. It is uncertain what the future of distribution—web and otherwise—will bring for documentary filmmakers, but one thing is clear: documentary will still survive.

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