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Feature Docs and Brand-Building: History Makers Conference Highlights the Prestige of the Genre

By Amanda Lin Costa

At the History Makers International conference, held January 25-27 in New York City, two cable executives and a prestigious documentary producer gathered to share their insights into the state of the feature documentary. The panel, "The Rise of the Feature Documentary," could also have been called "The Prestige of the Feature Documentary" or "We Won't Make Money Making Documentaries, but It Will Enhance our Brands." Molly Thompson, vice president of A&E IndieFilms, and Nancy Abraham, Senior Vice President, Documentary Programming at HBO, also provided insights into the decision-making at their respective channels, while Simon Chinn, founder of Red Box Films, discussed what compelled him to produce Man on Wire and Project Nim and shared some bizarre obstacles he had to overcome to get the films completed.

Documentaries as Brand Enhancement

Thompson maintained at the beginning of the panel that she was suspicious of anything deemed "a trend" in documentary filmmaking. She felt panels always want to categorize and quantify, but the truth is, there doesn't seem to be any formula for documentaries doing well at the box office--except perhaps, "bird documentaries," such as March of the Penguins and Winged Migration.

"You can't predict what will work," she insisted. "If we could, we would all be really, really rich. It is not a given that a film will succeed because similar films did." Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 was cited for opening the door to new audiences for documentaries, but that film is still in a class of its own, having grossed $119 million domestically and $222 million worldwide. Today's domestic box office successes are in the $4 million range. Moderator Neil Docherty, a senior producer at CBC, cited The Fog of War, Inside Job and Senna as more recent examples of documentaries that do well at the box office. Chinn shared that the production budget of most of the films he produces are in the $1.5 to $2.5 million range, with above-the-line budgets still low compared to dramatic features. Overall, everyone agreed the "rise" in documentaries is in the popularity of the genre, not necessarily box office success stories or earnings.

Abraham noted that while a feature documentary showing on HBO might not have the ratings of True Blood, it will serve other purposes; HBO's documentaries often garner awards and critical acclaim, which provides brand enhancement for the cable channel. She did point out that a documentary airing on HBO, then on VOD and HBO GO, can reach audiences of up to 2 million. The majority of HBO documentaries are commissioned and about a third are acquired after viewing a rough cut or sample reel, with HBO then signing on as co-producers.  

While the majority of HBO's documentaries premier first on the channel, HBO will qualify some documentaries for Academy Award consideration. In certain cases, HBO also acquires documentaries following their theatrical run. Abraham cited Project Nim; when HBO bought the broadcast rights, they agreed to allow Roadside Attractions to handle the theatrical distribution prior to the film's airing on HBO. Abrahams maintained that she and her colleagues believed in the film and felt this was a good strategy to build its audience and garner awards and critical acclaim.


From James Marsh's Project Nim (Prod.: Simon Chinn), which airs on HBO in first quarter 2012. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions


Thompson explained that while nonfiction programming had grown at A&E over the past eight years, stand-alone documentaries were becoming less and less of a priority, so the channel started A&E Indie Films to produce feature films. Allowing that financial rewards weren't the motivating factor in launching this division, Thompson maintained that developing A&E Indie Films "shows that we care about the creative community." But, she added, "We hope we will have a Fahrenheit 9/11." She also pointed out that their documentaries play a role in building the A&E brand. 

Thompson spoke passionately about Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story, which documents how and where the journalism community erred in covering football star- turned-soldier Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan. "They say journalism is the first draft of history," she noted. "What I hope is that this film is a second draft that corrects the record." The documentary, which The Weinstein Company distributed, fell short of expectations at the box office, however, despite Moore declaring the film an exclamation mark to Fahrenheit 9/11. The Tillman Story is currently airing on Showtime and will eventually air on A&E. For many theatrical documentaries, television provides another window for audience-building and buzz.

The panel also discussed the challenge of editing feature films for commercial breaks-something Abraham was grateful she never had to deal with, while Thompson, Chinn and Docherty all agreed it wasn't ideal, but a necessary evil.

Behind the Scenes at the Networks

"HBO pays between $10,000 and $1 million for a documentary," Abraham stated. The range reflects the many stages in which HBO becomes involved with a film. The HBO team, led by Sheila Nevins, often works with the same repertory of directors and producers, brainstorming with them about their next projects. "Some of these ideas go somewhere and some never develop" Abraham explains. "Whittling down the ideas is the biggest challenge."

Thompson cited access-to characters, to places, to institutions--as a key factor in what films A&E chooses to produce, and named Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Jesus Camp as examples. Documentaries about individuals dealing with monumental struggles, such The Tillman Story and Client Nine: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, also interest A&E-although Thompson drew the line at investigative journalism, unless there is a strong character behind the story. 

HBO also favors emotional stories and big characters, according to Abraham. She added that while there are always exceptions, HBO doesn't generally showcase nature or art documentaries or adhere to the one-hour television format because there are other channels tackling these topics and styles; HBO likes to produce documentaries unlikely to be seen anywhere else.

From a Filmmaker's Viewpoint

Chinn maintained that one could make a healthy living producing documentaries, but you have to have a passion for it, considering the investment of at least two years, from conception to completion. Chinn believed the real work-at least another year--begins upon completion. A successful documentary can have a long and rewarding life after the theatrical release with television, DVD, VOD and continued screenings, Chinn says, "if you get it right."

Financing for Project Nim came relatively easily because Chin pitched the film in the afterglow of the success of Man on Wire. Chinn had first heard of Nim, a chimpanzee raised by humans, when he came downstairs to find his pregnant wife, Laura, bawling while reading an article about the chimp. He knew then that this story was essentially about parenting. Once he found out there was a substantial amount of archival footage, as well as people still alive to tell the story, he asked James Marsh to direct. The real surprise for Chinn was how long post-production ended up taking; the story unfolded over 26 years, there were 13 principle characters and the documentary dealt with not only big ideas but scientific concepts that had to be explained in a simple and clear manner.

Man on Wire, also directed by Marsh, had a different set of problems, mainly Philippe Petit, the documentary's subject, who wanted creative control of the film. Eventually, Chinn was able to convince Petit to back off of his demands, but that didn't stop the madness. Chinn learned that there was archival footage of Petit on the high wire from decades earlier that had sat unprocessed for 30 years. When Chinn discovered how fantastic the footage was, he found out that the owner was not Petit, but the director who had shot it. That filmmaker had since become a fundamentalist Muslim and would only share the footage if his Imam in India approved. Eventually, Chinn was able to use the footage; he couldn't have imagined the film without it.


From James Marsh's Man on Wire (Prod.: Simon Chinn), which aired on HBO and was distributed to theaters through Magnolia Pictures. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures


Rising to the Occasion

Chinn noted that a really strong documentary can be as powerful as, or even more emotionally engaging than, any dramatic film. Finding the story and telling it well, Abrahams emphasized, involves many people and goes beyond just access and good subject matter. With the large number of documentary films being made today, filmmakers must rise to the challenge of engaging a broad audience if they want to find homes on networks and partner with them on their quest to build brand enhancement and prestige.

Amanda Lin Costa is a writer and producer in the film and television industry. She writes a series called Truth in Documentary Filmmaking and is currently producing the documentary The Art of Memories.