July 2, 2013

Documentareality: A Nonfiction Mash-Up


From the World of Wonder production Life with LaToya, which airs on OWN. Courtesy of World of Wonder

When first-time director Marta Cunningham got the news that her documentary Valentine Road had made it into the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, she probably didn't stop to Tweet a thanks to Kim Kardashian. But strange as it might seem, the indie filmmaker owes a debt of gratitude to the media vixen because, after years of struggling as an indie project, Cunningham's Valentine Road ended up in the loving hands of the company behind the Kardashian family: Bunim/Murray Productions.

It might seem odd that the same company responsible for the Kardashian television dynasty is the producing angel behind an earnest documentary about two at-risk teens whose lives collided in tragedy in 2008. But Valentine Road's complex take of the murder of a transgender kid in Oxnard, California is exactly the kind of story that rivets Sasha Alpert, the executive behind Bunim/Murray's documentary arm, BMP Films. "I always prefer to hear about things from a story perspective rather than a news perspective," says Alpert. "This was a news event embodied in a story."

That she got to spend Kardashian money on a project like Valentine Road is a credit to Bunim/Murray, and to Alpert being an out-of-the-box kind of Hollywood executive. She came to Bunim/Murray in 1996 as a documentary filmmaker looking to pay the rent with a job in something called "casting" for an experimental MTV series called The Real World. That show launched in 1992 and, by the time Alpert joined the company four years later, The Real World was not only a bona fide hit, but it would be widely credited as a prototype for the reality TV genre.

But in 2006, in a "moment of chutzpah," Alpert pitched Bunim/Murray co-founder Jon Murray and president Gil Goldschein the idea of forming a division to make documentary films, despite what she describes as "a business model that's completely anathema to what we're used to. I just thank everyone here for humoring me!"

BMP Films' credits to date include Autism: The Musical (Dir.: Tricia Regan), winner of the 2008 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Nonfiction Special; Shadow Billionaire, by director Alexis Spraic, about the death of DHL founder Larry Hillblom and the legal imbroglios and paternity suits that followed; the narrative feature Pedro, about the HIV-positive AIDS educator Pedro Zamora (who was courageously added by Bunim Murray as a housemate on The Real World back in 1994); and now Valentine Road, which airs this fall on HBO.

After Sundance, Alpert went right back to work casting Project Runway (Season 12), Bad Girls Club (Season 12) and The Real World (Season 29).  "I love having two very separate ways to use my brain," she maintains. While on the reality side, she enjoys the excitement of the fast pace, on the documentary side she has the satisfaction of "supporting people with these great ideas to make a film that they may not otherwise be able to get done."

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the dynamic duo behind the production company  World of Wonder, completely identify with Alpert's dual personalities. They've had a foot in both reality and documentaries for 20 years now, having produced hundreds of hours of "balls-y programming" (as their PR materials like to put it), from the classic Ru Paul's Drag Race to their 2013 productions Million Dollar Listings for Bravo and Life With La Toya for OWN, all the while compiling a long list of documentaries, including their edgy Party Monster: The Shockumentary (1998), The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000), Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal (2008), Becoming Chaz (2011) and, most recently, three docs commissioned by HBO: Wishful Drinking (2010), The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (2011) and In Vogue: The Editor's Eye (2012).

As Barbato explains, their documentaries serve to remind clients that they've "got the chops" and set the tone of authenticity and visual style for everything World of Wonder produces, but are "first and foremost a selfish act of really digging into our craft and feeding our desire to be creative."

Adds Bailey, "And I don't understand the great divide between doc and reality. People act as if one is good and the other is bad, and it's very tiresome. We're basically storytellers and it's such an exciting time right now because there have never been more different ways to tell stories. So we're just sort of using all the crayons in the coloring box."

That's a sentiment shared by Erik Nelson, the producer behind UFOs Over Phoenix and When Fish Attack, as well as Werner Herzog's documentaries over the past ten years, including Encounters at the End of the World, Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss and the Discovery Investigation series On Death Row

But Nelson considers his greatest achievement as a producer to be the moment on his primetime Fox show, Busted on the Job, when a disgruntled employee urinated into his boss's coffee. Nelson insists that securing a primetime slot for Busted on the Job was a lot harder than making Grizzly Man. "When you have a filmmaker like Werner Herzog and access to the Timothy Treadwell material and you put the two of them together, a chimp could get that done," Nelson maintains. "But getting a top ten Fox show during sweeps—that's hard."

Years later, as vice president of documentary for Lionsgate, Nelson used his reality TV street smarts to convince cable networks to finance theatrical documentaries as a way to glam up their brands.  "They all wanted to do what HBO did," he says. "So I was the Bombay-outsourced Sheila Nevins."  This led to Lionsgate producing a string of basic cable-funded theatrical documentaries, including Grizzly Man for Discovery Channel, The U.S. vs. John Lennon for VH1, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man for Sundance Channel and Meeting Ali for Spike TV. After leaving Lionsgate, Nelson used the same model to convince The History Channel to help finance Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Nelson says the lesson reality TV has for the documentary filmmaker is that it "forces you at gunpoint to take a viewing audience seriously." The "Darwinian hurl and burl of primetime commercial television toughens you up," he maintains. Over the last year, Nelson has stayed tough as a producer of factual one-off hours, despite the invasion of the docu-soap. Nelson was an executive producer on the NatGeo miniseries The 80s, produced Giant Squid: The Monster Is Real for Discovery Channel, and is producing The Day That Changed Everything, which airs on NatGeo this November on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Nelson's short list of networks newly open to the one-off factual documentary includes CNBC, OWN and Showtime, adding, "CNN, in particular with Jeff Zucker, is ripe for the right project from the right filmmaker."

Nelson is currently working on two feature-length documentaries with tentative homes: Kubrick's Napoleon, about the late filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's famous dream project about Napoleon Bonaparte (PBS recently signed on as a producing partner); and Better Off Without 'Em, a tongue-in-cheek muckraking documentary that argues why the South should secede from the Union.

According to Bailey and Barbato, the best way to stay affluent in today's market is to be "screen-agnostic" and embrace everything from OWN to Amazon. "Any screen will do if it's gonna find the audience that will appreciate and enjoy the story being told," says Bailey. Embracing this new normal, WOW recently launched the YouTube channel World of Wonder Presents. The duo sees the channel as a viable revenue stream—thanks to the ads—as well as a place to shore up the World of Wonder fan base, sell music and incubate new talent, like Club Kid celebutante James St. James, the star of the Web-only show Transformations.

Sasha Alpert thinks Netflix might be the ideal platform for her dream project, a vérité series like An American Family, the 1973 PBS classic that first inspired Bunim/Murray's The Real World.

Valentine Road will air on HBO this fall. In the meantime, Erik Nelson's self-funded but unreleased Dreams with Sharp Teeth—about his cantankerous muse, writer Harlan Ellison—can be downloaded from iTunes. Copies can be ordered of Bailey and Barbato's The World According to Wonder, a piece of media couture in a very old-school format: a six-pound coffee table book, featuring glossy photos of favorite "WOWlebrities" and behind-the-scenes anecdotes. It retails for $100 and is not available on any screen near you.

 

Elizabeth Blozan is the director of Rebel Beat: The Story of LA Rockabilly and is known around Hollywood as "the world's greatest transcriber."

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