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DIGITAL CABLE: A PLACE IN THE SUN FOR DOCUMAKERS

May 26, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Trio President Lauren Zalaznick has one piece of poster art in her office. Fittingly, it’s for a documentary-Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking film about Bob Dylan’s 1965 British concert tour.
In the documentary world, filmmakers aren’t the only ones who are passionate. Network executives are huge fans of the genre too. Inexpensive to buy and satisfying to watch, documentary films are just about ideal for a growing number of niche programmers on digital cable.
“If there’s one thing we hear from filmmakers, it’s that they’ve struggled hard to get their film made,” said Paola Freccero, Sundance Channel’s senior VP of film programming. “They want their distributor to put their full weight behind it.” Sundance Channel feels it has done that by creating the DOCday Monday programming block, which features 12 hours of documentaries every week, noon to midnight.
For Trio, the Universal-owned cable network, putting documentaries in prime time makes sense because the films it acquires are pop culture-based and are about an hour in length. Ms. Zalaznick bought 44 one-hour films for 9 Sharp this year in addition to 12 feature-length films (including Don’t Look Back).
About half will be U.S. premieres; some are even world premieres, such as Prom Night in Kansas City and Farang Ba (Crazy White Foreigner), about a 45-year-old kickboxer with a huge following in Thailand.
“Digital networks are much more likely to run documentaries that are experimental or nonmainstream,” said Ed Carroll, executive VP of the Independent Film Channel. “We’re not consumed with ratings. What’s important to the digital network is the brand.” To that end, IFC has created a multiplatform environment that Mr. Carroll says is ideally suited to launching documentary film.
“The reason someone makes documentaries is a passion for storytelling, Mr. Carroll said. “So the most important thing for that person is getting that film seen. We can do that.”