Documentaries: Suddenly Chic

Hollywood's stepchild no more.

That's a comment being echoed at documentary festivals across the country this year. At the coming Third International Documentary Congress in Los Angeles as well as at the recent filmfest "DOCtober" in Pasadena, Calif., the change is a front-burner topic.

"Documentary used to be a dirty word," muses David Haugland, an independent filmmaker and president of the International Documentary Association (IDA). "Right now, we're in the midst of a renaissance of nonfiction film - documentaries in particular. We've never had such attention and esteem." Lisa Heller, executive producer of the longest-running nonfiction film series on broadcast TV, PBS's "P.O.V.," agrees, adding, "It's a good time for independent filmmakers. It's suddenly chic."

Why the new interest in a discipline whose name usually evokes the "b" word (as in boring)? The reasons are both numerous and interrelated.

The technology explosion of the past decade has created new outlets for independent nonfiction films on cable, satellite, and broadcast TV, as well as on the Internet. The relatively inexpensive cost of nonfiction programming has made it extremely attractive - $300,000 to $400,000 an hour versus approximately $900,000 for sitcoms, and far more for dramas.

Equally important, audience tastes have changed. Fast-paced "reality TV" shows such as "911" and "Cops" have given viewers a taste for seeing "real life."

IDA member and film historian Betsy McLane points out that television exposes people to documentaries who might never pay $7 to see them in the theater. Today "is like a supernova in the universe of documentary films," she says. "More people than ever are seeing them on cable."

The work of breakout mainstream figures such as Ken Burns ("The Civil War") have demonstrated to TV viewers what documentary devotees have always known: Tell a good story, and the audience will come. Mr. Burns, who calls himself "an emotional archaeologist," says he is "drawn to subjects that speak to our heart." He adds that he is interested in "not just the dry dates and facts and events of our past, but something that [is] deeper, so that it has some higher, emotional resonance that would last."

Maturing baby boomers

Yet another factor, according to documentary-maker Martin Wassell, is the maturing of the baby-boom generation. He says as these boomers emerge from youthful self-absorption, they are pursuing what he calls "a higher, less materialistic truth." He maintains that as the postwar generation has come of age, it has gained an increased interest in and awareness of the world.

This interest "is taking them away from the traditional Hollywood film," Mr. Wassell says, adding that mainstream documentaries have quadrupled over the past decade. "There used to be only one or so a year. Now there are four or five."

As if to illustrate this point, the opening night of DOCtober festival screened "In Search of Kundun With Martin Scorsese." The film details the American director's encounter with the Tibetan people and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Mr. Scorsese, known around the world for films that depict violence as a means of resolving conflicts ("Taxi Driver," "GoodFellas," "Casino") has a simple explanation for his interest in a persecuted holy man. "It's the only way to go, love and compassion," he says. "The time has come for us to think more about humanity than my nation, our nation."

The film's director and coproducer, Michael Henry Wilson, agrees that documentaries are benefiting from a generation in search of more meaningful fare. "Fiction has become so much more formatted. Twenty years ago, there was a much wider range of feature films coming out of Hollywood, and that has changed radically." Now, he says, people are looking for films with an individual voice and finding them in documentaries.

"The beauty of the documentary is you have one person telling a story, taking you from one point to another, allowing you to experience something you haven't before," says Mr. Wilson, the director.

Beyond that, he agrees that the proliferation of TV channels has expanded the options for documentaries. But he also points to a few pitfalls, among them the pressure to tailor a film's distinctive voice to the needs of the outlet. "Co-opting can be a big danger because filmmakers end up being part of the system they challenge," he reflects.

Cable channel HBO has been a longtime champion of the feature documentary. Jeff Bewkes, chairman and chief executive officer, asserts that far from co-opting the distinctive voices of filmmakers, the channel is seeking them out. "We've been trying ... to expand, to broaden the types of projects that we have," he says. With the number of choices available to viewers, distinctive voices are the way to be heard above the crowd.

The bottom line

While documentaries are succeeding on television, their box-office clout has been spotty. The current IMAX (large screen) extravaganza "Everest" has pulled down $95 million internationally. But even the most popular mainstream documentaries of recent years have earned a drop in the bucket compared with most features. Michael Moore's highly regarded "Roger & Me," for example, took in only $6.2 million. "Hoop Dreams," a 1994 hit, earned just $7.8 million.

But contrary to popular wisdom, money is not always the final word in Hollywood. Filmmaker Wilson points out that feature director Scorsese has made numerous nonfiction films, adding, "It's his source material, his creative lifeblood."

She often hears from major feature directors about their dream documentary projects, says IDA's Ms. McLane. "We are the honorable men," she says with a laugh. She adds that she feels like a bishop in a medieval court: "There's all this intrigue. We don't have the money or practical assets, but we have a moral force everybody wants to be blessed by."

* This month is a particularly good one for documentary film festivals. HBO has joined forces with the IDA to sponsor a film series in New York called "Frame by Frame," Oct. 16-29. The Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is partnering with the IDA in the coming Third International Documentary Congress (IDC3) in Los Angeles Oct. 28-30. And the American Film Institute's AFI FEST '98, which offers a documentary showcase, is running in Los Angeles Oct. 22-31.

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