Doc of the Month Club: OWN Stakes Its Claim in the Nonfiction World

Since its launch in January 2011, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) has been chugging along under most TV viewers' radars. Amid harsh realities of getting a new cable network off the ground and transitioning Oprah's show audience to a whole slate of programming on a new channel, the network premiered the OWN Documentary Club in May. With three Emmy nominations for its inaugural film, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's Becoming Chaz, which follows the sexual reassignment of Chastity Bono to Chaz, the Club is off to an impressive start.

An important player behind the Club's beginnings has been Annie Roney, a name synonymous with high quality, award-winning content in documentary circles, and her company ro*co productions. "I had followed the success of Oprah's Book Club, and I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be cool if Oprah had a Documentary Club?' because in my experience, people were hungry for the kind of experience they had from watching a film," says Roney. "You can't read a book together, but you can watch a film together and have a conversation."

When the first rumblings of an Oprah Winfrey network resounded about four or five years ago, Roney knew that it would be a perfect outlet for a doc club. She pitched the idea to executives at Winfrey's
company, Harpo Productions, but it took a year or more for them to come around. Announced in January 2010 and officially launched in May 2011, the Club presents one film per month on OWN, a partnership between Harpo, Inc. and Discovery Communications.

With an eye toward completed independent works that are cinematic, Oscar-quality films, ro*co set up an online submission portal at rocofilms.com and began culling some 1,500 submissions for 11 Doc Club spots. "We do look at all of the submissions and decide whether we think the subject
matter might be a fit for OWN, if the style might be right," Roney explains. "Then
we screen those films and make recommendations to OWN executives. We work with their team, we present them with films, and ultimately it's their decision."

In clear, decisive moves to move the network forward, Winfrey recently took over as CEO and Chief Creative Officer. Her longtime producer Lisa Erspamer, who was serving as CCO, moved to Executive Vice President of Production & Development, and Doc Club host Rosie O'Donnell, a passionate fan of documentaries, hosts the monthly program and has input into the selection process. The Club's first season includes 13 films, with three original productions and 10 acquisitions.

 "One of the benchmarks we were given early on was, if you can imagine the subject matter having been an Oprah show, it might be a good fit," says Roney, when asked about the
difference between OWN and HBO's documentary selections. "Her show over the years covered so much. I think if you look at our current line-up, it's quite varied. There are difficult subject matters tackled, as well as hopeful, inspiring, upbeat films that have been acquired, and lots of things in between." 

Lisa Erspamer is a 15-year veteran of Harpo Productions and was named co-executive producer in 2006. When she moved to OWN, Winfrey said, "Lisa has been a creative superstar. She's brought fire and force to many of the incredible shows we've done over the years. I value her passion and sensibilities and trust her instincts and judgment." When speaking with Erspamer, it's clear that even after all this time, she maintains enthusiasm for great stories. She describes the OWN documentary brand as "real life, well told."

 "I'm amazed by passionate filmmakers who care so much about making documentaries, using all their money and time because they want people to get the message," says Erspamer. "And our audience loves to hear compelling stories of what people are going through. People will lock in even if they don't have the same issues." Most of all, Erspamer doesn't want to waste your time as a viewer: "I want people to remember what they are seeing and to talk about it."

The OWN Documentary Club rolls out one film per month to present the films "the right way" and to give them the best opportunity for success. Both Roney and Erspamer gush about the great ratings for the docs that have shown so far, including Sons of Perdition, about young men excommunicated from a fundamentalist Mormon sect, and Serving Life, executive produced by Forest Whitaker and directed by Lisa R. Cohen, exploring a hospice program at Angola prison in Louisiana. The latter was the first original OWN production to air on the network; it premiered last month. 

Future original productions on the OWN docket include Tent City, from Steven Cantor and executive producers Gabriel Byrne and Leora Rosenberg, which explores homelessness in Nashville, Tennessee--specifically, a community of 100 individuals who live under a downtown bridge. The film follows four Tent City residents as they run as candidates for a seat on the Nashville Homeless Commission. Another project in the works for the Documentary Club comes from Barbara Kopple, who follows actress Mariel Hemingway, granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway, as she explores the legacy of tragedy and depression in one of America's foremost literary families.

 

From Serving Life (Exec. Prod.: Forest Whitaker; Dir.: Lisa R. Cohen).

 

The September Documentary Club selection is Matthew D. Kalis' Most Valuable Players, a fun romp that calls to mind the wildly successful Glee, following a unique live awards show for high school musical theater in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. With high quality singing and dancing combined with high-stakes competition as students vie for awards accompanied by sponsored prizes, Most Valuable Players is an enjoyable film that explores the value of the arts in schools. It airs September 8.

 

From Matthew D. Kalis' Most Valuable Players.

 

 

Future docs on the OWN Documentary Club slate include Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation, airing October 20; Yoav Potash’s Crime After Crime, November 3; Lisa Leeman’s One Lucky Elephant, December 1; and Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s Louder Than a Bomb, January 5.

"The hope is that Oprah can do for docs what she did for books," maintains
Erspamer. "She's been involved, and going forward will be even more involved. We've got a great curation process and the films are really important."

Roney sums up the hope from the perspective of the doc community: "Every bit of our energy at ro*co is about getting these films seen. To be aligned with the Oprah brand is such a good sign for the entire documentary industry because she can bring in the mainstream audiences that documentaries haven't enjoyed. It lifts up the whole industry."

 

Agnes Varnum is the communications manager at the Austin Film Society in Austin, Texas.

Editor's Note: Some factual information was added and some material was deleted since this article was originally published.