While an exceptional year for film quality, tt would be a mistake to argue that 2007 was a good year for the nonfiction film "industry", such as it is. Despite the best efforts of many (from filmmakers to writers to distributors to exhibitors), the year featured one bad news story after another - box office down, interest down, distribution options down. And then, come the end of the year, the bad joke that was the Academy's Documentary Feature Shortlist - long on staidness, short on imagination.
So, grab a stiff drink and revisit the lowlights of a thoroughly depressing year as we recap The Top 5 Issues in Nonfiction 2007:
5. All Michael Moore, All the Time
The unveiling of a new Michael Moore opus is starting to seem like the release of a new Harry Potter book. In addition to the release itself, there's the nonstop hubbub and hoopla that surrounds it. With Potter, this means costumed kids standing in line at bookstores. With Michael Moore, it means an endless series of "fact-checks" from the "serious media", lambastes from conservatives ("it didn't gross 100 million, it's a flop!") and tortured second-guessing from the left ("someone has to say it, I just wish it didn't come with all his baggage").
This year, the SXSW-premiere of a new, supposedly unbiased anti-Moore film kicked off the debate a full three months early. The subsequent whining by the film's makers that festivals were blocking their film in deference to the mighty Michael added some questionable last-minute PR to their cause. Throughout all of it, it became clear that it wasn't enough to debate SICKO, Moore's treatise on the health care crisis, because we were still having an active debate about Moore's first feature, ROGER & ME.
But SICKO provided it's own controversies (including the aforementioned idiocity that it was somehow a flop), with charges of hypocrisy (why is he staying at the Four Seasons if he's such a "man of the people", wondered the very un-serious LA Times) and loose journalism (from the likes of Wolf Blitzer).
Seems unlikely to stop the kudos to come: Moore's position as "the most important man in nonfiction"™ neatly guarantees loads of critics prizes (especially from groups that barely see more than 5 docs a year) and a probable Oscar nod. Meanwhile, Moore-haters and liberals who like to seem above it all can bask in the critical drubbing of CAPTAIN MIKE ACROSS AMERICA, his Toronto-premiering tour film.
4. Oscar Qualifying Rules
What started in late 2006 as a bit of anger and much head-scratching over the Academy's charge that films had to play 14 cities in 10 states, ended just as bizarrely this fall with a total reversal - you only have to play in New York and Los Angeles. In between was months of debate over whether the new rules would make it impossible for films to qualify or would guarantee that the shortlisted films were true theatricals. The verdict - no and no.
It hit a nadir when IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS producer John Sinno wrote, days after the Oscars, an Open Letter to the Academy, in which he blasted the new rules. His screed captured the "sky is falling" attitude of some in the doc community and prompted many uninformed film writers to guess that most films would be out of the running under such a system. The truth was that plenty of films would have been able to qualify in past years and 70 films still found a way to qualify this year, and (as you'll see at issue #2) being a true theatrical release was in no way a mandate.
But beyond the surface reactions, there were serious issues. The Academy seemed to have no idea what venues actually qualified a true theatrical venue. They planned to leave such research up to filmmakers and theater owners to determine. Meanwhile, a cottage industry was born, as filmmakers without distribution (or whose distribution was pending) spent tens of thousands of dollars making sure their films traveled to enough cities.
The Academy seemed to realize that the whole theatrical mandate was a debacle, but their fix is likely even worse. In a repudiation of the last decade's push for theatrical releases, we're back to a 2-city requirement. It may not be the bad old days of Saturday morning screenings at 11 AM, but it's not much better - a week in Los Angeles (likely again hidden in the sparsely-attended downtown Laemmle) and a week in New York (hey Anthology Film Archives, your phone is ringing). You know that the likes of HBO and THINK will be able to secure a week, but will you?
3. Declining Distribution
One of the not-so-quiet secrets of the year has been the struggle of many award-winning films to get distribution. The storyline usually goes something like this - film premieres at a major festival and wins prizes and plaudits, interest is expressed by one or two of the usual doc-distributing suspects (Magnolia, THINK, IFC, etc.), a deal is discussed and seems to be in the offing. Then, suddenly, the deal is off and the filmmaker ends up making a deal with a smaller, start-up company that promises grass-roots marketing with fingers crossed that theaters and press will come aboard.
Of the 7 major North American festivals that award prizes for nonfiction - Sundance, SXSW, Full Frame, Hot Docs, Tribeca, Silverdocs & Los Angeles - only one grand jury prize winner, Alex Gibney's TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, ended up with an experienced distributor - THINKFilm. The others, which include Jason Kohn's MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET), Jennifer Venditti's BILLY THE KID and Pernille Rose Gronkjær's THE MONASTERY - MR. VIG & THE NUN, all ended up patching together distribution, with MANDA BALA thus far fairing the best. The Sundance jury winner has made more than $
One would have to go back to 2001's Southern Comfort (about the life of transsexual Robert Eads) to find a grand jury winner at Sundance that didn't wind up with an established distributor on board. And this was before the two big purchases out of Sundance - IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON and MY KID COULD PAINT THAT - disappointed at the box office. So what does that bode for 2008?
2. The Oscar Shortlist
After all the maneuvering by the Academy and the posturing about the importance of theatrical distribution (see issue #4), when the Academy released its vaunted Shortlist of 15 films in November, shockwaves reverberated through the nonfiction community.
On its face, the list made a lie of the Academy's so-called theatrical mandate. Only six films of the fifteen had actually had a traditional theatrical release. Three of the films had already aired on television.
But it was the films that didn't make it that brought the most heat. During a year in which the notion of a nonfiction new wave began to take hold - auteurs (not journalists) taking real risks with craft and filmmaking style, telling true stories with vision and artistry - the Academy ignored so many truly great films that the mind reeled.
A number of impassioned words were written on the topic here and elsewhere, and these brought a strong, mostly supportive, response. Startlingly, we received a great deal of positive reinforcement from where you might least expect it - from members of the Academy and members of the IDA (which was also criticized). So if Academy members know that this year's list is - as more than one Academy member told me - "a scandal", then how did it happen?
We'll likely never know, other than oft-repeated tales of out-of-touch members receiving boxes of DVDs and picking films that played well for them on their television screens, which is an impressive way to reinforce a theatrical mandate.
For our part, the entire episode, from the list to the response, has inspired us to tackle something we began discussing with folks earlier in the year. You'll be hearing about it in the days to come.
1. Dismal Box Office
I'm as big a cheerleader for theatrical nonfiction viability as the next person, but after months of trying to wish it untrue, even I have to admit that it was a terrible year for nonfiction at the box office.
Part of it was our own fault. Filmmakers and distributors left the first half of 2008 nearly dry of high profile releases. By October, there were as many notable nonfiction films opening on a weekend as there were in the first five months of 2007. Not a good idea.
But there was something else too. A sense that documentaries are medicinal? That Seinfeld was right - we're incredibly depressing? Too much bad news in the world anyway and you don't want to pay $10 for it, you'll just wait to put it in your queue?
Compared to any year since 2002, when BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE changed everything, it was the worst year for docs by far. Expected hits like IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON were big disappointments. Folks at Magnolia are still scratching their heads over why mobs didn't show up for CRAZY LOVE. And after coming up way short on both MY KID COULD PAINT THAT and JIMMY CARTER MAN FROM PLAINS, how much does Sony Pictures Classics have to make on Errol Morris' upcoming film to ever want to pick up a doc again.
Waves come and go and 2008 could change everything, what with Errol and Spurlock's did-he or didn't-he find bin Laden flick. But in a year with a lot of bad news, the site of an empty theatre was the worst news of all.