Peter Bart: It’s Boom Time For Doc Makers As Funding Expands And The Real & Surreal Collide


Filmmakers, always alert about “following the money,” are taking notice of this phenomenon: Raising money for theatrical films (especially drama) is getting tougher, while funding for documentaries is expanding exponentially. And there’s growing heat in TV and film for the relatively new domain of “scripted reality.”

Docs used to be the province of HBO, but now it’s Showtime heralding a new doc about Julian Assange, Amazon prepping a piece about the Iran-Contra affair and ABC mobilizing an anniversary multi-part doc about the death of Princess Diana. Major indie producers such as Brett Ratner and Jason Blum also are becoming players in this burgeoning arena, spanning theatrical releases as well as TV limited series.

The maelstrom of activity is viewed with bemusement by Sheila Nevins, the President of HBO Documentary Films for more than three decades, who has supervised well over 1,000 shows and won countless awards. Nevins, who just published the candid memoir You Don’t Look Your Age … and Other Fairy Tales, acknowledges that the new phenomenon “is both good news and bad news.” Faced with intense bidding from “oligopolies like Netflix and Amazon,” she asserts, “I’m used to being Gulliver, not a Lilliputian.” Always a showman, Nevins’ memoir is embellished by an audio component with chapters read by Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Rosie O’Donnell, among others.

It was Nevins who startled the staid documentary world years ago – HBO then masked its docs as docutainment — by programming such shows Taxicab Confessions and Real Sex, while focusing resources on socially relevant topics. Today, she observes, docs about Syrian refugees or domestic violence are vastly more accessible, and challenging, as a result of the ubiquity of social media. The challenges to doc makers is to provide an appropriate structure or to embellish reality with so-called scripted reality – a genre that was given new prominence by O.J: Made in America, the multi-part ESPN series that went on to win the Documentary Feature Oscar. Significantly, the Academy last week re-wrote its documentary regulations to rule out multi part or limited series (docuseries are eligible for Emmys).

Despite the competition, HBO under Nevins will continue to air 25-35 docs a year, financing and producing roughly one-third of them, and lately has agreed to open some of them theatrically. While Nevins insists that “management has never asked me to produce numbers” (i.e.. ratings), she nonetheless is pushing more aggressively into celebrity docs with the signing of Susan Lacy, who presided over the American Masters series at PBS. Lacey is prepping docs on such personalities as Jane Fonda and Steven Spielberg. Under another deal, Vice is displaying its brand of energized millennial reality on HBO.

Multiple production entities, meanwhile, are developing their own take on the doc genre. Blum, whose company hit the mark with theatrical films Get Out and Split this year, is moving ahead with as many as 10 docs for 2017 because, as he puts it, “the subject matter excites me.” Roger Ailes, the recently dethroned chief of Fox News, is one such topic for a scripted series being spearheaded by Oscar-winning Spotlight filmmaker Tom McCarthy. To Blum, who built his company on genre films, his docs “represent a shift from scary to things that should scare you.”

Brett Ratner’s RatPac is creating at least five docs year including American Warlord, dealing with a father and son who inflicted misery in Liberia. RatPac helped fund last year’s Night Will Fall, an award winning doc that depicted efforts to shoot the horrors of post-Holocaust prison camps (Alfred Hitchcock was among the directors recruited for the project).

The definition of the documentary has changed markedly from the era of Frederick Wiseman or even Ken Burns. TV networks increasingly are looking to anniversaries as grist for multi-part docs. On April 28, Netflix will release Rodney King, billed as a “spoken-word portrait” directed by Spike Lee. The Weinstein Company is producing Waco, a six-part drama starring Michael Shannon and John Leguizamo that will offer a “a stark contrast” to the reports about the Branch Davidian standoff from 25 years ago. Colin Farrell will play Oliver North in a miniseries from Amazon about Iran-Contra, three decades later. And, given the anniversary trend, several Monica Lewinsky pitches reportedly are making the network rounds.

Praxis Films

Given the push toward scripted reality, the narratives themselves are being updated to reflect the changed circumstances. Laura Poitras unveiled her portrait of WikiLeaks founder Assange at the Cannes festival a year ago, fresh off an Oscar win for Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden. The Assange doc now is described as “a work in progress” as Poitras assembles new material dealing with Assange’s role in the presidential election. The doc, now titled Risk, will have a theatrical release this summer and then premiere on Showtime. Given its reworking, Risk will represent the risks of reality as against scripted reality.

“The definition of a documentary continues to expand,” observes Marie Theresa Guirgis, long-term doc maker who now works with RatPac. “But our audiences will hopefully keep expanding as well.”

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