Trends in Documentaries

Cartel Land, Welcome to Leith, Meru, The Wolfpack, Going Clear, Steve Jobs and 3½ Minutes,10 Bullets. These are the last seven documentaries I’ve watched. All seven share some very similar stylistic elements: a sensationalist story; a heightened and insistent music score; a tightly packed, almost breathless three-act narrative structure; and the imprimatur of a big-screen release. I realize “big-screen” is a somewhat outdated term, but these movies are packaged for maximum theatrical impact, intended to envelope you with their soundtrack and forceful dramatics. Most of us, however, will watch many of them, like I did, at home.

I can’t imagine myself ever wanting to make a movie like those mentioned above. None have a sense of much personal investment in the subject matter, many come across as over-determined, most feel cluttered, and they are all clearly driven by a need to earn back the money the releasing studio has invested in them. But, these are the kinds of documentaries that get a theatrical release nowadays. These are the docs where funders put their money. These are the docs getting into Sundance, SXSW, and the Toronto International Film Festival. If you are a documentary filmmaker today, it’s important to recognize this undeniable trend, which represents a “big change in the last 5 or 10 years” according to a panel of so-called decision makers I attended as part of September’s IFP Conference: Screen Forward in New York.

The panel included Dan Cogan, the executive director of Impact Partners, a company representing a pool of around 40 investors who choose if they want to get involved in a film, which Impact then steers toward a theatrical and multi-platform release, with the focus on earning a profit. Heidi Ewing, the director of Detropia, talked about how she mounted a successful self-distribution strategy for her movie. Christie Marchese, the CEO of Picture Motion works with “issue filmmakers” who are able to answer the question, “is your film relevant?”. And Catherine Olsen, executive producer of a company called Passionate 4 Docs, exhorted filmmakers in the room to “go with your passion. Convince me that you have the passion for the story, you are the person to make it, you know the characters.”

Another panel, which offered a breakdown of the successful marketing campaign for The Wolfpack, echoed similar themes. Your film must have “incredible access, incredible characters and be beautifully rendered.” Cogan said that Impact Partners is interested in “great films that also happen to be social issue documentaries,” and he added that audiences are “demanding more creative documentaries” and are more “interested in great stories than in issues.” Frankly, that sounds like a contradiction, but if I understood correctly, this is the “big change” in documentaries in the last half-decade. A swerve away from purely agenda-driven social issue docs about food, climate change and toxic chemicals, and towards docs that feel, more often than not, like fictional films. This makes the message to filmmakers loud and clear: don’t even think about knocking on our company door unless your documentary is great, incredible, passionate, impactful and dramatic.

Okay. Wow. I get it. Making a successful documentary is like rushing a sorority. You must be exceptional, beautiful and–it goes with the territory–a conformist. Examine the similarities in the films I mentioned earlier. Cartel Land, which is powerfully filmed, offers an up-close view of vigilantism in the Mexican drug wars. But the film’s verité power is eclipsed by a visceral gloss, an editing scheme designed to move us from one action set piece to the next, and a relentless Hollywoodized music score. The same goes for the white supremacist subject matter of Welcome to Leith, which tries to construct a compelling film out of a paucity of compelling elements: a couple of grandstanding neo-Nazis, a few seconds of reality TV-style iPhone footage, and a relentless Hollywoodized music score. Meru, the most egregiously over-packaged documentary of the bunch, turns its extreme how’d-they-do-it climbing footage into what amounts to filler between the phony, digitally manipulated mountain wide shots and aggrandizing climber interviews, all of it propelled by a–you guessed it–relentless Hollywoodized music score.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. There is no law that says documentaries can’t be entertaining. And it’s certainly nice to make some big money for a change. I also agree that it’s time the strictly issue-oriented doc put story-telling and cinematic artistry ahead of polemics. But, the studios’ self-righteous claims about impact are kind of ridiculous. Of the films mentioned in the first line of this post, only one, 3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets, about a headline-grabbing racist shooting and the subsequent trial, offers an insight or subtlety, although it too suffers from the same relentless music score (can we please have a moratorium on the ominous soundtrack drone?).

What concerns me more in this new era of the big screen, high drama, sensationalist documentary, is the simultaneous devaluation of all the other types of documentaries being made. The kinds of films the majority of filmmakers actually end up making. The ones that play like personal histories, short stories, ethnographic studies, or observational portraits of cultures or places. These are the films deposited into the digital vaults of iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, GooglePlay, Vimeo, IndieFlix and the countless other tributaries of the online streaming universe. These are the films that feel to me infinitely more unique, more creatively daring and more deserving of our love, attention and care. But be warned: these films, the film you are making or self-distributing right now, will never make back the Kickstarter dollars you raised to finance it. The gulf between the haves (the Cartel Lands and the Merus) and the have-nots (your movie) is as vast as the gap between the 1% and the 99%.

Okay. I get that, too. And I’m fine with it. Really. Because it is liberating to know the odds before you embark on the making of, and the ultimate distribution of, your labor of love. Yes, my wife and filmmaking partner Ann and I want people to see our current film, Zona Intangible. We don’t want to just make it for our 212 Kickstarter backers. We love the story we’re telling, the characters we’ve introduced, the spirit that our film embodies. But we’re not deluding ourselves either. Our film is not a change-the-world movie. It doesn’t contain dark revelations, sensational dramatic conflict, or last-minute twists (although there are a few low-key final act surprises), but does that mean it’s not worth making and not worth seeing? If I was giving myself advice (and you can take it or leave it) I’d say this: ignore the trends, adjust your budget accordingly, shrug off the rejections, manage your expectations and make your movie.