Documentaries Hot Items at Sundance

Jan 27, 2008  •  Post A Comment

This year’s documentary slate at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, was, according to many veteran attendees, one of the strongest in recent memory, thanks to a number of films that appealed to audiences’ hearts as well as their heads.
Meanwhile, film buyers responded tepidly to even the highest-profile fiction films, belying the pre-Sundance predictions of a seller’s market developing out of the protracted writers strike.
Instead, this year’s edition of the country’s premier festival of independent film, held Jan. 17-26, will be remembered for documentaries, most of which will wind up on television in the next 12 to 18 months.
Geoffrey Gilmore, longtime director of the Sundance Film Festival, was understandably reluctant to brand this the greatest documentary slate in years. But he agreed that, compared with the heavy-handed political films that dominated last year’s festival, these films captured the human side of social issues more effectively.
Among the crowd favorites at Sundance were documentaries that used the legal case of director Roman Polanski to criticize the U.S. judicial system, two bodybuilders on steroids to show America’s double standard about drugs and the birth of director Morgan Spurlock’s first child to remind audiences that Osama bin Laden is still on the loose.
“It’s not like the subject matter has become doc-lite,” Mr. Gilmore said. “But I do think we are seeing them in a little less ideological form.”
Nonfiction made up half of the 64 competition entries at the festival, and many documentaries were brought there by television networks. Public TV, HBO and the Sundance Channel are old hands at Sundance.
HBO presented “Sugar,” a fiction film about a minor-league ballplayer from the Dominican Republic; and documentaries including short film “La Corona” (The Crown), which was nominated last week for an Oscar.
PBS, in partnership with ITVS, brought six films, including an artistic portrait of the career of rock star Patti Smith.
In recent years A&E, through its Indie Films division, and other basic-cable channels have begun to take part in the festival as well.
ESPN, for instance, snapped up “Kicking It,” a documentary about a soccer tournament featuring homeless players. A&E presented “American Teen,” a documentary about four high school seniors in small-town Indiana; it was picked up by Paramount Vantage at Sundance.
Of course, many networks attended with their own Sundance-approved projects as well.
“The more that documentaries can get out there into the culture and be a real force, it helps us with what we do,” said Kathy Lo, associate director of program development and independent film for PBS. “Some of the interest we’ve seen in documentary the last few years have brought a lot of talent and a lot of money to it.”
Some documentaries seem to be headed to theaters, either because their creator is a bankable nonfiction star, such as Mr. Spurlock of “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?,” or because cinema screens seem the right venue for the visually lush presentation of films such as “Nerahkoon” (The Betrayal), a story about a Laotian-American family produced by ITVS and BBC.
Major Buyer
Christian Vesper, VP for acquisitions at Sundance Channel, said his network is probably the festival’s volume buyer, acquiring some 30 documentaries in each of the past two years. But he usually has to wait up to six months while filmmakers pursue more lucrative deals with film distributors and higher- profile networks such as HBO and PBS.
“We just wait until those deals are settled, or not,” Mr. Vesper said. “For the most part, it works out well. Theatrical is great for exposure.”
Many filmmakers see theatrical as the ultimate validation of their work, and they shudder at the thought of their film playing in the background on a 32-inch TV screen.
“You’re going to be shown once, maybe twice—if you’re HBO, maybe seven times—on television, ever,” said Patricia Aufderheide, author of “Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction.” “You’re a blip in their world. But what it does is it brands you for when you do your post-broadcast marketing. So television is really part of your promotional strategy.”


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