One of these days someone's going to make a documentary about all the problems with documentary. It will probably have to be longer than (1452 minute-long) 'Grandmother Martha' and might, unlike 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,' actually be more self-reflexive than the average modern doc. While we wait for such a film, let's get the ball rolling on the discussion.
Yes, it is true that we've just had one of the best years for documentary ever. But that doesn't mean there aren't also more negative issues for the mode than ever before. The thing is, there are so many kinds of non-fiction films and so many kinds of doc enthusiasts that we all have very different answers for the following question: what one thing could change for the better for documentaries?
I've spent the past week at the Miami International Film Festival (read my wrap-up) and am currently at South by Southwest seeing docs both great and not so great, and running into extremely divergent doc fans and filmmakers. Most were totally stumped by the broad question at hand, so I've also opened it up to people not in my vicinity, such as on Twitter and a Facebook group for documentary lovers. And now, of course, I'm opening it up to you.
A number of people I asked, including /Film's Peter Sciretta and 'Greatest Movie Ever Sold' producer Keith Calder, say docs in general just need to be more entertaining. Relative but focused on another aspect, blogger and consultant Basil Tsiokos -- his What (Not) to Doc blog regularly addresses bad trends in and common problems with the mode -- says it's the stigma against docs that needs changing, so more people understand that these films can be entertaining. That going to see them isn't like going to school. "That's one of the reasons 'Catfish' was marketed as a reality thriller as opposed to a documentary," he says.
HitFix's Drew McWeeny thinks that sort of marketing should continue. "We need to stop marketing them as "docs," he tells me, "and embrace the range of storytelling that implies. Sell them as mysteries, romances, comedies. The public has a hunger for reality as entertainment, so let's stop treating docs like they belong in some filmgoing gulag."
Is it the job of distributors and marketers to get us past the misconceptions, or the filmmakers themselves to aim for more easily and appealingly sold genre classifications? Should film writers who appreciate docs work harder to build a bigger audience for non-fiction cinema in general as opposed to only hyping individual works? Pajiba's Drew Morton believes "increased awareness is ideal," and the movie blogs (he recognized my work here as an example -- but I'm starting to see more and more doc love from the other blogs, too) can be instrumental in that.
Could Kevin Smith also be an influence? Filmmaker Ryan Ferguson offers up the idea of a touring distribution model similar to what's being done for Smith's 'Red State.' This would give audiences outside film festivals a chance to become more engaged with the subject matter through Q&A discussions, making documentary moviegoing more of an event. And tours would particularly be suited well for shorts exhibition (Ferguson makes documentary shorts, by the way). While not a touring program, I would add that more cities could instead do with a weekly series like NYC's Stranger Than Fiction, which showcases new and old films, all with special guests and post-screening talks.
One filmmaker and fan of the mode sees home viewing models as having a greater opportunity for involvement. Spencer Snygg brings up the idea of "value added programming," which could allow people to interact with cable or online platforms, clicking links when prompted, having access to other significant footage that didn't fit the finished film, at the moment they might have been included ("branches" he calls them). He sees a cost issue for the filmmaker/distributor. I see potential for doc-makers like Snygg to find influence in user-generated films (like '11/4/08' and 'Life in a Day'), even if it's all their own material being employed.
Other fans merely stated that they'd like to see more documentaries available in commercial theaters, acknowledging sadly that it's unlikely when their fiction competitors do better business. Filmmaker Robert Greene is more detailed than some in his suggestion for a better model for theatrical distribution. "There are films made for theaters, yet we never see them there," he complained. "A small but loyal audience wants them there." And VOD and online platforms are great for exposure, but their awareness still feeds off theatrical release. Greene cites boutique distributor Factory 25 and small venues like NYC's Maysles Cinema (where Green's 'Kati with an I' opens April 8) and reRun Gastropub Theater as being helpful in this change for getting "theatrical" docs appropriately screened in theaters.
Though not directly an answer to this question, Morgan Spurlock's response at Sundance to Moviefone's poll asking What Hollywood Needs to Change in 2011 fits here. "I would have more studios financing documentary films," he said. "I think they have the ability to popularize docs even more, to get them into theaters." Another company that should get into financing docs is Netflix, according to Pajiba's Dustin Rowles, since "most of the movie-watching public will end up seeing them [on Netflix Instant] anyway. It'd be a relatively inexpensive way for the service to create exclusive content," to compete with Amazon and others.
The Documentary Blog's Charlotte Cook would also like to see change in documentary distribution, believing that too many distributors misunderstand docs and also see them as a cheap commodity that they insufficiently promote. She claims docs don't actually have a real dedicated fan base like fiction cinema does, and she worries that more and more bridge-gapping "populist" films like 'Winnebago Man' and 'Best Worst Movie' will be viewed as the best bet for distributors over other films that could do just as well with the right marketing. "I think strategic screenings like Stranger than Fiction, The DocYard, etc., are the best way to help a film by generating buzz and causing people to seek out these films," she adds.
Interestingly enough, Thom Powers, the man behind the Stranger Than Fiction series, did not see what he's doing for theatrical distribution as the primary form of change for the mode. He thinks the most important thing right now would be for independent filmmakers to organize in order to "to fight corporate legal pressures like what Chevron applied to Joe Berlinger over 'Crude.'" He says it's a big topic, one he's been discussing a lot lately, and it's by far the heaviest issue raised during this poll.
Simpler responses to the question include specific suggestions, some a matter of taste, such as wanting less dependency on talking-head interviews (this is Sciretta's primary pet peeve), less bell-and-whistle motion graphics (Cinematical's own Wiliam Goss agrees with this one) and less "Ira Glass faux-ironic style voice-over narration (Rowles). Filmmaker Scott Leamon raises the necessary show-don't-tell issue, complaining that "visual integrity rarely compliments the quality of the narrative." UGO's Jordan Hoffman would like to see a tighter market, stating, "Not every artist, musician, architect and political figure needs a feature length documentary, even if they did march for civil rights."
The same could be said for causes. Rightwing Film Geek blogger Victor Morton wants fewer "illustrated essays" where a cause and its righteous interests are the only reason for the film's existence. Likewise, Tsiokos says there are too many docs where the personal journey of making the doc is the only true reason for its existence. He'd like to see more new filmmakers seek objective consultants to help shape their films, the result of which might curb this problem of people making docs that end up more about themselves than the issue or story at hand.
If you agree or disagree with any of the answers I received or have suggestions for change of your own, comment below. And let's figure out ways to make an already great mode of cinema even greater. Or, if you're like The Playlist's Drew Taylor and think documentary is just fine as it is right now, I'd love to see comments stating that this question doesn't even need to be asked.