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December 31, 2007



I suppose once our film comes out I may join in the estimation of this being a depressing year for documentaries, but at the moment it's hard to agree with all the pessimism. Though it's clear there weren't multiple boffo hits, it's also an extremely young industry (documentary as theatrical that is). Part of what's happening is that distributors are discovering that just saying "documentary" doesn't insure a big hit. While both "Crazy Love" and "My Kid Could Paint That" sound intriguing from a marketing standpoint, they also don't point at particular demographics nor promise escapist entertainment. So in many ways they mirror the modest successes of similar narrative indie films. Where Sony Pictures Classics and their ilk got the idea that docs like this would appeal to millions of people is beyond me. They are both interesting movies and worthy of being seen, but paying millions for them and then calling them bombs when they don't bring in millions is unfair to those films and the industry. They are both niche films, even within documentary (no kids, Michael Moore or penguins), and should be treated accordingly. I would love if the biggest narrative hit of the year was a Bujalski film, but the viewing public has never worked that way. As the buzz about documentary film calms down, we'll settle into a normal pattern where some docs with clear success and entertainment value written all over them will do well, and some won't. And an occasional surprise like "Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" or "Into Great Silence" will break through.

Calling the very existence of an up and down theatrical market for movies depressing is missing the larger happy point which is that we are even having this conversation at all! There is an actual industry! Every year Hollywood complains about how ticket receipts are going down, fretting first about television and then DVDs and then piracy and on and on. And now "specialty" distributors are complaining that there are too many movies in the fall, that no-one is going to art films. Welcome to the show, doc-makers! After decades of being relegated to public tv and educational sales, we are now at least part of the fretting and complaint cycle!

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