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Is the New Golden Age of Documentary Almost Over?

By Chuck Braverman

Filmmaker Chuck Braverman

Being a judge this year on the IDA, Directors Guild of America (DGA) and Oscar Documentary committees, I got to see a large number of films. There are some very high-quality docs being produced around the country and abroad. But is it the best of times, or the worst of times for documentary producers?

The last couple of years in particular have seen the successful theatrical release of some wonderful documentaries, including Capturing the Friedmans, Spellbound and My Architect. With the supposed 500-channel satellite and cable world opening up, it would seem that the possibilities for the small doc production company would be endless.

But how many cable networks are actually looking for serious docs these days? It looks like some of those networks that ran interesting "one-offs" are now more inclined to run "format" shows or "reality" series. The truth is, there are fewer true documentary slots open today than just a couple of years ago.

One of the few places consistently churning out high-quality, award-winning documentaries is PBS, whose flagship series include American Experience, American Masters, Frontline and NOVA. Breaking into that clique is very tough, with most slots spoken for. Shelia Nevins at HBO/Cinemax has probably produced more Academy Award nominees and winners than any other shop. An executive working for Nevins recently told me that after all their regular commitments, they may have only six or seven openings for new work every year.

As a long-time member of the DGA, I am a strong supporter of the many advances the guild has made in creative rights and other areas. In a recent ruling, however, without consulting many of its own documentary filmmakers, the DGA decided that if you are a principal in the company producing a doc, you must pay yourself a minimum of $25,000 per half-hour and therefore pay the 12.5 percent health and pension contribution on that amount. For a one-hour documentary, that means you have to give the DGA $6,250 for the privilege of directing your documentary. The DGA says it is only trying to stop the flow of red ink in the health plan. But to penalize the small entrepreneur documentary filmmaker businessman is crazy.

So with all the aforementioned hurdles, where is the good news for documentary filmmakers? The digital revolution that swept through filmmaking is only about five years old. Until about 1998, you had to have some serious money to make films and docs. Now, in some cases you may be able to get by with a relatively inexpensive DV camera and a fast computer. The $999 Final Cut Pro software program from Apple is quickly replacing the $100,000 Avid editing system.

But like many earlier advances in technology, just because the tools are becoming affordable, doesn't mean that anyone can create with them. That digital revolution, which has allowed every middle-school student to pick up a two-pound, three-chip broadcast-quality camera, is spawning another revolution just over the horizon. And that is High Definition. As the proud owner of an HD set, I can tell you that there are many hours of HD shows now on every night on a dozen channels.

That small, unobtrusive three-chip DV camera that was so great for some observational docs will soon be replaced by a larger and more expensive 15- to 25-pound HDCam from Sony, Panasonic or another manufacturer from the Far East. The tapes will be ten times more expensive and the decks will cost more than a year's tuition at USC Film School. But the pictures will be brilliantly clear and the audiences will demand that everything be shot in HD and finished with 5.1 surround sound. Just like when sound replaced silents and color replaced black-and-white, networks will soon find their old NTSC standard definition material starting to age very quickly. Now the challenge will be to figure out how to make documentaries in Hi-Def for the increasingly smaller budgets the networks are expecting because of DV. We recently produced our first in-house HD show using a rented Sony HD cam. We cut everything offline after dubbing down from HD. We upgraded one of our editing systems to HD to online in-house. The show was expensive but the experience gave us the confidence to produce more shows in HD. When the doc finally aired on HD, we were ecstatic at how good it looked. Once you have flown first-class it is more difficult to sit in the back of the plane.

We may now be passing through a short golden age of documentary production without even being aware of it, when the stars have aligned to allow documentaries to be produced for relatively modest budgets. If you ever wanted to produce that great doc, now may be the time.


Chuck Braverman is the owner and president of Braverman Productions, Inc. in Santa Monica. He was nominated by the DGA three years in a row for his documentaries and won in 2001 for High School Boot Camp. That year he was also nominated for an Academy Award for Curtain Call.