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The Dusking of the 'Golden Age'? A Look Back and Forward

By Tom White

In a year that saw a significant downturn in box office performance for documentaries, one might speculate on the ebbing of the so-called Golden Age of Documentary, a period which arguably began with Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine in 2002, crested with Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 in 2004 and declined with Michael Moore's SiCKO this year. It was a dramatic decline, indeed from the dizzying heights of 2004, which saw 11 films top the $1 million mark, seven of which grossed over $2 million. With Fahrenheit 911 earning a gargantuan $119.5 million, one would think that in a volatile year, and one of most divided politically in recent US history, that the Moore effect would touch primarily issue-driven, get-out-the-vote films, but with films like Touching the Void, Born Into Brothels, Riding Giants and The Story of the Weeping Camel all faring well, the overall picture reflected the breadth and depth of the genre.

In three short years, and many great films later, what can one attribute to a year in which only three films--SiCKO, No End in Sight and In the Shadow of the Moon--made $1 million, and that In the Shadow of the Moon, having earned $1.1 million, was considered a disappointment? So many films, freighted with acclaim, festival honors, publicity and, in a couple of cases, impressive distribution deals, failed to live up to expectations--in some instances, earning just four or five figures.

One bright spot was Into Great Silence, Philip Groning's a stunning, three-hour film about Carthusian monks, which defied expectations, quietly earning nearly $800,000 in a carefully strategized marketing and roll-out plan by Zeitgeist Films and positive word-of-mouth, primarily  from New York's Film Forum audience. The film opened in February and was still showing up on IndieWIRE's Box Office Table in December.

Panelists at festivals and markets speculated about a glut of films, as well as a glut of festivals and markets. Theatrical distribution is an expensive endeavor, whether for a major studio like Sony Pictures Classics, which paid $2 million for Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That, which in turn underperformed; to mid-sizers like THINKFilm, which fell short with the aforementioned In the Shadow of the Moon, as well as with festival hits War/Dance, Lake of Fire and Nanking.

With these festival favorites tanking at the box office, perhaps the festival audience is the main audience for these films. With festivals of every stripe--high-profile, genre-specific, regional, community-specific--continuing to proliferate across the country, can over-exposure on the festival circuit, despite audience awards and jury prizes, actually hurt a documentary's crossover potential to a more mainstream audience in the less forgiving world of the multiplexes? Is an award at Sundance, whose audiences are primarily made up of journalists, distributors and filmmakers, a true indicator of how the film will fare with audiences made up of doctors, lawyers and teachers on a night off? Filmmakers I've spoken to at Sundance over the years have always enjoyed the screenings in Salt Lake City--in some instances, more than those at Park City--since the Salt Lake audiences are more representative of the end-users. But then, if a doc also generates heat at regional fests like Seattle or Fort Lauderdale, both of which run for several weeks, what becomes of these docs when they come around again to those regions? While the festival circuit can be a vital means to test-drive an audience, plug into a community of fellow docmakers, and, it is hoped, score a distribution deal, one might run the risk of saturating your potential market while running up a fairly significant festival circuit tab in the process.

Perhaps cases like Into Great Silence, or, in previous years, Rivers and Tides and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, were those rare exceptions of documentaries that found and sustained their audiences over long periods of time.

But another encouraging note of 2007 was the introduction of the word "filmanthropy" into the lexicon, thanks to AOL mogul Ted Leonsis, who bankrolled Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturnam's Nanking, as well as Susan Koch's upcoming Sundance premiere Kicking It, about a South Africa-based tournament for homeless soccer players. Other filmanthropists who were there before Leonsis include Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen of Vulcan Productions, and Jeff Skoll, who cashed in on his eBay largesse to found Participant Productions. Leonsis delivered a PowerPoint keynote address about filmanthropy at Silverdocs this past year; here's the link:

Over the past decade of the digital revolution, we have seen many innovative models for films trying to reach their core audiences--day-and-date releasing from Red Envelope, IFC First Look and Mark Cuban's companies; Four Eyed Monsters, the fiction film from Susan Bruice and Arin Crumley; Film Movement--and we'll undoubtedly see more. With all the choices out there to see documentaries--from theaters to cell phones--it may be that the audiences are simply staying home, but still watching. Witness Robert Greenwald's model from a few years back of encouraging neighborhood viewings and discussions of his films, thus balkanizing the mass audience into smaller, living-room sized communities.

In the cusp of year's end and year's beginning, we find ourselves in the middle of awards season, and the critics are weighing in overwhelmingly for Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight, with scattered plaudits as well for Seth Gordon's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and Michael Moore's SiCKO. The Academy Awards, ever the crescendo to this drumroll, will see a significant change in the rules for qualifying one's doc for consideration in 2008, with the 14-city theatrical roll-out being eliminated, while sustaining a two-screening-a-day/one-week run in both the County of Los Angeles and the Borough of Manhattan.

But the real big news and note on which to end this reflection is the launching of a new award for nonfiction--the brainchild of filmmaker AJ Schnack and Toronto Film Festival programmer Thom Powers, with the assistance of distributor IndiePix. Schnack hatched this idea in response to the Short List for the Academy Awards, which prompted a heated viral conversation about how the Academy had overlooked many worthy, groundbreaking docs. And so, with the help of a committee of festival programmers who see these innovative films before the rest of us do, this new award, to celebrate the craft and breadth of nonfiction filmmaking, has a time and place--March 18, at the IFC Center in New York City, a few weeks after the Oscars telecast, and perhaps, the true curtain closer on the 2007-2008 Awards Season.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary and content editor of