Skip to main content

Cablers Take Docs to the Movies

By Elizabeth Blozan

From NOVA's IMAX film, <em>Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure</em>.

Earlier this year Discovery Channel announced a self-proclaimed "historic" venture-"Discovery Docs," the first theatrical film series produced by a cable TV network. Co-produced with CameraPlanet, Discovery Docs will release from two to four titles a year to theaters, followed by a Discovery Channel airdate. Discovery says the first film in the series is slated to debut in early 2004, although until the ink dries on everyone's contracts, neither the filmmaker nor the topic will be announced.

Discovery might have started a sensation, or at least furthered a growing trend. Since the announcement, more and more TV producers seem ready to go to the movies, including HBO and BBC, hoping to feed what looks like a newly minted, documentary-crazed public. Does this herald a new frontier for the documentary filmmaker?

As cable networks like Discovery and HBO grow ever more prosperous, perhaps the addition of theatrical as a revenue stream is inevitable—particularly as a handful of profitable documentaries have recently taken some of the daring out of the decision. But what makes Discovery's entry into theatrical particularly interesting for the filmmaker is what at least looks like a genuine commitment to films with challenging content. When Discovery and CameraPlanet announced the Discovery Docs series, it also announced the series' association with a line-up of highly influential filmmakers: Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams), Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, American Dream), Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebacker (The War Room,, Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture, On the Ropes) and Michael Apted (the Up series, Moving the Mountain). In other words, Discovery is not going to the movies with a crowd-pleasing nature series.

So what made this highly commercial cable company decide to get behind a marketing strategy based on a creative line-up that even Discovery Channel addicts probably won't recognize? The yenta behind this marriage is Steve Rosenbaum, founder of CameraPlanet (and ID columnist), who brought the idea and his documentary community ties to Discovery as soon as Billy Campbell came on board as president.

"There is a caliber of filmmaker that has never found its way to cable television," says Rosenbaum. "There is an underlying thinking that these filmmakers value their artistic freedom, their freedom to make mistakes, change direction, explore a story with ambiguity and let a film evolve. This process is counterintuitive to networks ordering up documentaries for TV." Rosenbaum says it was these filmmakers' "undeniable track records" that gave Campbell and Discovery the confidence to agree to produce with less of a hands-on approach than usual. "What Discovery figured out is that a successful theatrical release will make the film a more valuable TV product," Rosenbaum observes.

Rosenbaum believes that "films have a tendency to echo around the world and create a debate about society that TV doesn't," a debate that Rosenbaum believes will make it to the living rooms across America and influence those remotes. Discovery's special consultant Andrea Meditch agrees. "Films like Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans and Winged Migration have reached a broad audience with documentaries that are compelling and story-driven. There is an appetite theatrically for a bigger audience."

Sheila Nevins, executive vice president of original programming at HBO, is a bit more skeptical about the recent box office successes. "People are quick to call something a trend," she says. "It's hard to figure out now whether the docs that succeeded are potluck or whether it's a real trend. Time will tell. Maybe the timing was right; maybe they touched a nerve. It's too early to tell."

Nonetheless, HBO is in the game, appearing in movie theaters as a co-presenter of such high profile docs as Capturing the Friedmans and Spellbound. But Nevins insists that HBO has no theatrical agenda. "We don't go running after documentaries for theatrical release," she maintains. "It is an option as a source of revenue, but our basic business is TV. This doesn't mean it's not compatible with theatrical. Many times theatrical will help the TV enormously. But a theatrical release is expensive. There was Crumb, there was Hoop Dreams, but in the past, it was years between the ones that made money."

In the case of Capturing the Friedmans and Spellbound, HBO has no theatrical rights, making no investment and seeing no profit from the theatrical release. But HBO did negotiate the company's association with the films as part of their TV licensing deals—good for the distributors and good for the HBO brand. "We're not doing it for vanity," points out Nevins. "Branding is advertising, branding is money, branding is association. We want to be known as the place that makes the best documentaries or is associated with the best documentaries. We want to be the first place people come with their documentaries. That's not always translatable in terms of a cash register."

But beyond branding associations, HBO is also gearing up for theatrical release of a handful of titles being developed in-house. An example is Jennifer Lopez's first documentary producing venture, Los Quinces, about a Cuban-American teen preparing for her traditional Quinceaera debutante ball. "This wasn't explored ten years ago, but now it's part and parcel of our development process," Nevins notes. "During pre-production we consider this as a potential source of revenue. We ask, will people pay for it?" But even when HBO owns the theatrical release of a title and comes on board as the distributor, says Nevins, her department still expects to partner with an experienced, high-profile distributor. At least for now, says Nevins, she's not meeting with the new distribution staff hired for HBO's feature films.

An often overlooked example of TV reaching out to the big screen—the really, really big screen—is NOVA's 15-year venture into large format films, which includes such titles as Special Effects: Anything Can Happen, To the Limit and Storm Chasers. NOVA, a 30-year-old series owned by WGBH in Boston, produces the large format films independently from the PBS series. Because large format films have a very long theatrical life, some as long as 15 years, these titles are licensed worldwide for theatrical distribution, only with no broadcast rights attached. According to executive producer Susanne Simpson, the future broadcast life of the large format products will most likely be as high-definition content. "The long view says that if you invest in a giant screen film now, it will down-convert to HD very nicely," says Simpson. "So in fact, what you're building is a future HD library that can be sold for TV broadcast."

However, with NOVA's release of Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure in 2001, the PBS series might be considering some changes in the future. The $7 million Shackleton earned $22 million worldwide and a two-hour NOVA special, Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance, earned an Emmy for Best Historical Documentary. And Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure was the first large format project NOVA distributed in-house. "We produce mostly for the science museum, giant screen theater market," Simpson notes. "So the films we've chosen to make are geared for that market. Occasionally one will break through, end up being shown in some commercial theater. We've optioned the documentary rights to E=MC 2. It has dramatic elements that might make a two-hour documentary with the potential for theatrical release." But, adds Simpson, "We're not planning this up front."

According to Rosenbaum, the documentary audience might not be growing, only the product of an industry better able to satisfy niche tastes. "I was at a deli the other day and there were 17 brands of soy sauce," Rosenbaum recalls. "I asked myself, does each one have a fan club of that will only buy this soy sauce?" Rosenbaum insists that the niche tastes in films are growing in America along with everything else Americans consume, including cable channels.

What cable channels might end up bringing to the table for documentary filmmakers is the ability to sell the steak over the sizzle by lending the power of cable brands built on the idea of high-quality programming. The NOVA brand can secure government, corporate and even exhibitor investors to help produce the film that needs to be made, according to Simpson. "We're doing it because we think we can make a contribution to the science museum educational marketplace," she maintains. "We want to make a profit, and we'd like to make a lot of money from these films, but that's not our mission; that's not our goal. We can wait longer to make our money back. Our first goal is to make a really good film that's going to be used and be out there and make a difference. Shackleton was one of the most inspiring stories we'd come across in a long time, and we just needed to do it."

Certainly the Discovery Channel can leverage a reputation for quality when it brings an audience a film tackling a challenging social question. As for HBO, most people feel the Emmy champ has earned its tag line as the brand that defies branding "—It's not TV, it's HBO"—a reputation due not a little to Nevins' remarkable stamina for uncertainty. "I love working at HBO," she states. "They have a mission to experiment, to break through artistically. I'm lucky that I have this mission. We don't think of markets. We don't think we have to make a project to serve this market, to satisfy that one. Movies like Spellbound and Columbine didn't come out of targeting a market. They came out of ideas and then found their universe. You have a hunch, but you can never be confident, you can never be sure. Anyone who thinks they know, I dare them to be right."


Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance entertainment writer and publicist based in Santa Monica, Calif. She is currently producing a documentary on LA rockabilly.