Good morning, let's get right to it...
The seeds of deals that were beginning to be sown in Park City, began to come to fruition last week, with three major announcements for Sundance docs (and at least two more due to announced shortly).
First up was the sale of out-of-competition buzz favorite CATFISH to Relativity Media and Rogue Pictures (with Brett Ratner helping to broker the deal and taking on Executive Producer duties). Next, IFC grabbed Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern's JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK, followed quickly by a pact for Amir Bar-Lev's THE TILLMAN STORY with The Weinstein Co.
Those sales come as the film year hums merrily along (with Sundance turning into Rotterdam so to turn into Berlin) and slates and programs are announced for the next round of fests. We covered SXSW's line-up last week (see here, here and here), there were also program announcements for True/False (more on that later) and Thessaloniki.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country (and prior to the snowpocalypse), Washington DC was abuzz with this year's RealScreen Summit - the annual reality television confab that draws broadcasters and nonfiction producers (and those who want to be) and charges a sizable fee for supplying the proximity. Those of us in the documentary film world have long known of the Summit and it's trade magazine namesake, RealScreen, as a kind of corporate 2nd cousin twice removed. While they may brand themselves as "the best in non-fiction" on their website, a banner ad for RealScreen's "factual entertainment awards" - "the first truly global celebration of factual entertainment excellence!" - and headlines about reality stalwarts Endemol and ex-NBC programming chief Ben Silverman's "newly formed multimedia company" tell you that RealScreen's heart is really in reality strips.
Nonetheless, in an "essay" the Washington Post's Philip Kennicott wants to use a controversy at this year's summit to explore "what's wrong with the documentary community". He begins by setting the scene:
"It attracts everyone from network executives to scheduling honchos to impecunious filmmakers looking for funding. With more than a thousand delegates arriving from two dozen countries, this annual conclave of suits and talent, makers and marketers, is a benediction of sorts. We are Docuwood, hear us roar.
But a funny thing happened on the way to this year's summit, being held in the Renaissance Washington Hotel. Last Monday, a sternly worded memo was sent to media planning to cover the proceedings. The press, it seems, was not welcome at a gathering devoted to people who spend much of their time searching out magical moments of candor, unscripted truth and behind-the scenes drama."
And then later, j'accuse:
"(T)he reflexive, first instinct to limit transparency at the Real Screen summit... suggests the degree to which the larger documentary community hasn't yet figured out its basic contract with the public, especially when it comes to balancing the commercial side of the business with the claims made by filmmakers about the pursuit of truth and the public good."
Kennicott makes a few key errors in his piece - it's ridiculous to draw conclusions about what "the larger documentary community" has or hasn't figured out based on the activities of one Canadian-originated trade show, just as its tiresome to read journalists (in this day and age particularly) sigh so heavily about the problems with openness and ethics in documentary (comparing it so unfavorably with the golden standards of "professional journalists"). And it's a real stretch when he ignores RealScreen's frequent use of the word "factual" as a description of their rasion d'etre, and instead distorts the term "nonfiction", attempting to separate "nonfiction" from "high-minded, artistically sophisticated documentaries made in the public interest".
You know, the good for you stuff. Like journalism.
The RealScreen story - a "documentary" event limiting press coverage - brings us to our closing rant, on a topic that's not too far afield and one that annoys us with some frequency.
Bland's link took us to the film description for the secret screening:
"From its opening shots, which map the makeupless terrain of the subject's face, this riveting portrait film announces itself as a work of art that's as far from a celebrity puff piece as you can get. Immersing the viewer in the day-to-day life of an iconic performer, the film peels back the layers of her life, her work, and her drug-like addiction to being in the public eye. Through it all, she gives ample evidence as to why she's earned her reputation as a trailblazer, who, even at her bawdiest (and believe us, it gets bawdy), is impossible not to love."
Now, we've written here before about our feelings re: the shell game that is the film fest premiere/sneak preview/secret screening con. But, we've also played along, mostly because if a filmmaker wants to have an undercover screening a few weeks before their official public premiere (whether to work out their nerves or test the film in front of an audience or just cause they can't wait), well, who are we to play the role of killjoy.
And so, last year we saw two secret screenings at True/False, one that would premiere two weeks later in Austin, another that was in competition at Tribeca, and we held our fire (as well as our thoughts on the film) until they were officially in the public eye.
But this is another matter altogether.
Two years ago when I showed up at Full Frame and dropped in at their publicity office (I was working press, don't you know), I was surprised to be handed a list of films that I was not allowed to write about. The surprise wasn't being told some films were off limits (Full Frame, too, has been known to do "sneak previews" of films that will soon premiere elsewhere) but the fact that the films in question were actually films that had already screened at Sundance.
Further, I had written about these films in Park City. But three months later in Durham, I'm supposed to pretend that the films aren't at the festival? Even though the films are listed on the website?
Now True/False takes this ridiculousness a step further. While in the past, the Missouri fest had used their secret screenings to preserve "premiere status" for films, this is the first time that they've kept a film "secret" even after it has screened - incredibly publicly - in the United States. This strikes us as a bad development.
There's that old saying, "the cat's out of the bag". But, in this case, what True/False - perhaps encouraged by a distributor or by another festival looking to have second dibs on the film - has done is to say that the cat actually crawled back into the bag when no one was looking.
Pay no attention to the cat behind the curtain.
So not only will bloggers, critics and twitterers not be able to write, review or tweet about "secret screening pink", everyone is also supposed to pretend (even after reading that most tell-tale description) that they don't know what the film is. Even though the film was highly praised (and widely written about - including on this blog) when it was at Sundance, and, as Bland notes, won an award there, and - forgive me if I further unravel this Encyclopedia Brown mystery - was subsequently picked up for distribution (and therefore mentioned elsewhere in this article), we must tie ourselves in knots pretending the film is sitting quietly on its distributor's shelf.
Yet, and yet, those same bloggers, critics and tweeters CAN write about the film if they just preface it all by saying, "oh, we're behind on our Sundance reviews, here's our coverage of...".
It's funny and ironic that the answer to the question "Can we talk?" turns out to be, "No", unless you wanna fudge the truth about it.