The current appeal of Documentaries?

Discussion in 'Movies' started by Stevan Lay, Jun 23, 2004.

  1. Stevan Lay

    Stevan Lay Second Unit

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2000
    Messages:
    485
    Likes Received:
    0
    It seems to me that documentaries have become more accessible and prevalent than it was say 5 or 10 years ago. 2003 was a great year for documentaries with Capturing the Friedmans, Spellbound, Bus 174, and The Fog of War amongst the standouts. Now, in 2004 we'll have Fehrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, and The Corporate as the main headliners, in which I'm assuming that those three will - if not already - be profitable in terms of return on investment.

    Is this a trend in the genre cycle or has documentary filming become more sophisticated in its approach and technique that has lifted the profile of this genre in recent years?

    I guess it helps to have an interesting subject matter or a controversial argument but what other factors has made the documentary genre a success of late?
     
  2. Stevan Lay

    Stevan Lay Second Unit

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2000
    Messages:
    485
    Likes Received:
    0
    It seems to me that documentaries have become more accessible and prevalent than it was say 5 or 10 years ago. 2003 was a great year for documentaries with Capturing the Friedmans, Spellbound, Bus 174, and The Fog of War amongst the standouts. Now, in 2004 we'll have Fehrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, and The Corporate as the main headliners, in which I'm assuming that those three will - if not already - be profitable in terms of return on investment.

    Is this a trend in the genre cycle or has documentary filming become more sophisticated in its approach and technique that has lifted the profile of this genre in recent years?

    I guess it helps to have an interesting subject matter or a controversial argument but what other factors has made the documentary genre a success of late?
     
  3. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

    Joined:
    May 19, 2002
    Messages:
    12,060
    Likes Received:
    0
    Bowling for Columbine no doubt helped documentaries in general, but overall, even the successful ones don’t make much at the box office. Super Size Me has managed to become a huge success so far raking in over $7M (US)—contrast this with Fog of War and Spellbound, both very fine documentaries where each only managed about $5M.

    Errol Morris is for me the very best documentarian active today and all of his films box office totals would not approach Bowling for Columbine (somewhat over $20M). His The Thin Blue Line for example did not even gross $2M.

    It helps, obviously to make films about big corporations (GM, MacDonald’s) or very well-known, controversial subjects. The Thin Blue Line, about corruption in the Dallas Police Department just does not have enough profile to have been able to draw big numbers, even though it is far more well constructed and innovative than his Fog of War. And his even earlier Gates of Heaven hardly had any audience, despite critical praise.

    Earlier, excellent documentaries were made by the Maysles Brothers, among others. Much of their work can be obtained on Criterion, if you are not familiar with them.

    I don’t think that any of the current documentaries you mention (including Fog of War) is as sophisticated (at least in technical terms) as those other works—and perhaps (other than allowing for technical improvements) no more so than Man of Aran, back in the 30s.

    I do think that they have become much more commercial (not more sophisticated). I would give a lot of credit to Michael Moore for this, as he has figured out how to include humor in his passion and make his high profile subjects both outrageous and entertaining. Others have learned from this.
     
  4. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

    Joined:
    May 19, 2002
    Messages:
    12,060
    Likes Received:
    0
    Bowling for Columbine no doubt helped documentaries in general, but overall, even the successful ones don’t make much at the box office. Super Size Me has managed to become a huge success so far raking in over $7M (US)—contrast this with Fog of War and Spellbound, both very fine documentaries where each only managed about $5M.

    Errol Morris is for me the very best documentarian active today and all of his films box office totals would not approach Bowling for Columbine (somewhat over $20M). His The Thin Blue Line for example did not even gross $2M.

    It helps, obviously to make films about big corporations (GM, MacDonald’s) or very well-known, controversial subjects. The Thin Blue Line, about corruption in the Dallas Police Department just does not have enough profile to have been able to draw big numbers, even though it is far more well constructed and innovative than his Fog of War. And his even earlier Gates of Heaven hardly had any audience, despite critical praise.

    Earlier, excellent documentaries were made by the Maysles Brothers, among others. Much of their work can be obtained on Criterion, if you are not familiar with them.

    I don’t think that any of the current documentaries you mention (including Fog of War) is as sophisticated (at least in technical terms) as those other works—and perhaps (other than allowing for technical improvements) no more so than Man of Aran, back in the 30s.

    I do think that they have become much more commercial (not more sophisticated). I would give a lot of credit to Michael Moore for this, as he has figured out how to include humor in his passion and make his high profile subjects both outrageous and entertaining. Others have learned from this.
     
  5. Rob Gardiner

    Rob Gardiner Cinematographer

    Joined:
    Feb 15, 2002
    Messages:
    2,950
    Likes Received:
    1
    I wonder if cable TV has had any influence. There are entire channels (Discovery, History Channel, etc.) that air nothing but documentaries.
     
  6. Rob Gardiner

    Rob Gardiner Cinematographer

    Joined:
    Feb 15, 2002
    Messages:
    2,950
    Likes Received:
    1
    I wonder if cable TV has had any influence. There are entire channels (Discovery, History Channel, etc.) that air nothing but documentaries.
     
  7. Brook K

    Brook K Lead Actor

    Joined:
    Feb 22, 2000
    Messages:
    9,467
    Likes Received:
    0
    Those documentaries that are able to capitalize on certain controversial and/or commercial subject matter are able to make a profit, similar to fictional films. It also helps that a Moore film, as well as Super Size Me, get marketing pushes on par with that of the average studio release. That isn't something that is accorded to most documentaries which still only play festivals and a week or two at the art house.

    I agree that 2003 was an outstanding year for documentaries, but I think the best ones still remain underviewed and made little impression at the box office. Films like: Tibet Cry Of The Snow Lion, Stevie, & The Weather Underground
     
  8. Brook K

    Brook K Lead Actor

    Joined:
    Feb 22, 2000
    Messages:
    9,467
    Likes Received:
    0
    Those documentaries that are able to capitalize on certain controversial and/or commercial subject matter are able to make a profit, similar to fictional films. It also helps that a Moore film, as well as Super Size Me, get marketing pushes on par with that of the average studio release. That isn't something that is accorded to most documentaries which still only play festivals and a week or two at the art house.

    I agree that 2003 was an outstanding year for documentaries, but I think the best ones still remain underviewed and made little impression at the box office. Films like: Tibet Cry Of The Snow Lion, Stevie, & The Weather Underground
     
  9. andrew markworthy

    Joined:
    Sep 30, 1999
    Messages:
    4,762
    Likes Received:
    12
    This issue has been discussed in the Brit media quite a lot over the last couple of years. The argument being made over here is that it's all down to the aftermath of 9/11 coupled with a general rise in depressing news about the planet (increased terrorist threats, global warming et al). Fiction is being seen as increasing peurile, be it TV drama, movies or books, and people are turning to non-fiction to reflect a more sombre mood. Hence the rise (in the UK at least) of sales of history and other non-fiction books at the expense of fiction. I don't think that it's necessarily down to the better quality of recent documentaries, simply that more attention is being paid to them.
     
  10. andrew markworthy

    Joined:
    Sep 30, 1999
    Messages:
    4,762
    Likes Received:
    12
    This issue has been discussed in the Brit media quite a lot over the last couple of years. The argument being made over here is that it's all down to the aftermath of 9/11 coupled with a general rise in depressing news about the planet (increased terrorist threats, global warming et al). Fiction is being seen as increasing peurile, be it TV drama, movies or books, and people are turning to non-fiction to reflect a more sombre mood. Hence the rise (in the UK at least) of sales of history and other non-fiction books at the expense of fiction. I don't think that it's necessarily down to the better quality of recent documentaries, simply that more attention is being paid to them.
     
  11. Andrew 'Ange Hamm' Hamm

    Andrew 'Ange Hamm' Hamm Supporting Actor

    Joined:
    Apr 7, 1999
    Messages:
    901
    Likes Received:
    0

    While I'll concede his influence on the genre's popularity, calling Moore's films "documantaries" is a stretch at best and wishful thinking at worst. Well-documented examples abound of his inventing interviews, falsifying timelines, editing out context, and outright fabrication of material. Moore's films aren't documentaries, they're propaganda, and I certainly hope against hope that he doesn't have a lasting influence on the genre.
     
  12. Andrew 'Ange Hamm' Hamm

    Andrew 'Ange Hamm' Hamm Supporting Actor

    Joined:
    Apr 7, 1999
    Messages:
    901
    Likes Received:
    0

    While I'll concede his influence on the genre's popularity, calling Moore's films "documantaries" is a stretch at best and wishful thinking at worst. Well-documented examples abound of his inventing interviews, falsifying timelines, editing out context, and outright fabrication of material. Moore's films aren't documentaries, they're propaganda, and I certainly hope against hope that he doesn't have a lasting influence on the genre.
     
  13. Mike Broadman

    Mike Broadman Producer

    Joined:
    Aug 24, 2001
    Messages:
    4,951
    Likes Received:
    1
    Maybe it's the same attitude that makes "reality TV" so successful. I think there's this feeling of "seen it all" with movies- just look at our own "Dumb Movie Cliches" thread.
     
  14. Mike Broadman

    Mike Broadman Producer

    Joined:
    Aug 24, 2001
    Messages:
    4,951
    Likes Received:
    1
    Maybe it's the same attitude that makes "reality TV" so successful. I think there's this feeling of "seen it all" with movies- just look at our own "Dumb Movie Cliches" thread.
     
  15. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

    Joined:
    May 19, 2002
    Messages:
    12,060
    Likes Received:
    0

    This is exactly why he has had and will continue to be an influential documentarian.

    Without going into politics, I am always very interested in the number of charges leveled against Michael Moore, but that are not also leveled against other documentaries and documentarians—though I’d concede that Super Size Me is getting some of the treatment.

    Many (perhaps most) documentaries (and I’ve written on this before), including what is generally considered to be the very first, Nanook of the North use many of the same devices that Moore uses. For example Nanook’s family in Robert Flaherty’s film, is in fact not his family, but local Inuits who were paid by Flaherty to make the film. Actors, in other words.

    In the same film many, perhaps most of the scenes were either staged or recreated. The struggle with the seal was done with an already dead seal attached to Nanook’s line. Many of the scenes of the lifestyle being depicted had already largely disappeared from the Inuit life even before the film was made and some items had to be recreated for the film.

    If Moore were to do the same things, he would be soundly criticized for not making a documentary.

    Or take two of the most honored documentarians who have ever made documentaries: Albert and David Maysles. They come probably as close as possible to a style called cinema verité, or a film that depicts exactly what has happened as anyone (or even as possible). But what they did in a film like Salesman was to edit over 90 hours of film into a 90 minute documentary. With this much footage, they and their editor, Charlotte Zwerin, could have chosen to tell a variety of stories and focused on any of several different characters.

    That they chose to tell a story of a mostly unsuccessful salesman, who fails in his job does not mean that they could not have chosen to make the core of their film one of his colleagues who sold door to door very successfully. That they did not do so was a deliberate choice on how they wanted to present their view of reality. One could say that they had an agenda.

    And when Moore does the same thing, charges are leveled against him, that he makes ‘propaganda’.

    Except for some nature documentaries, I have a hard time calling to mind very many documentaries that don’t introduce a point-of-view to the film and are not open to some of the charges brought against Moore. This because if nothing else, the editing process never leaves everything in (or the film would be much longer than 90 minutes), meaning that it can always be rightly claimed that significant details have been omitted.

    For example, in this forum I read a criticism of For All Mankind, a documentary on the Apollo program and the moon landings that the documentary did not give sufficient attention to Apollo 13 and therefore presented a false picture of the program’s success. And I read another that the editing choice to put together film from several different missions, as though it was one continuous mission was deceptive. Were Moore to have done this he would have been criticized much more vigorously.—no doubt charged with ‘falsifying timelines.

    In short, I think that Moore is doing exactly what has been done (and is being done) in many, many (perhaps most) documentaries and by most of those making documentaries. That he is doing it on subjects about which many people have firm, emotional opinions, and does so successfully just means that his films are being considered by many people who actually don’t have much of an understanding of the form and set up benchmarks for him, that very few others could meet.

    Even some nature documentaries are edited in order to present an agenda. For example, Winged Migration, a stunningly beautiful achievement, very most certainly presents a point of view, though nowhere is anything falsified. About the only documentary that comes to my mind, that does not have a point, is Le ciel et la boue/The Sky Above, the Mud Below, about an expedition over the Owen Stanley mountains of New Guinea made back in the late 50s-early 60s.

    And my guess is that if I knew enough cultural anthropology, I’d probably find that the filmmakers here too, had an agenda.
     
  16. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

    Joined:
    May 19, 2002
    Messages:
    12,060
    Likes Received:
    0

    This is exactly why he has had and will continue to be an influential documentarian.

    Without going into politics, I am always very interested in the number of charges leveled against Michael Moore, but that are not also leveled against other documentaries and documentarians—though I’d concede that Super Size Me is getting some of the treatment.

    Many (perhaps most) documentaries (and I’ve written on this before), including what is generally considered to be the very first, Nanook of the North use many of the same devices that Moore uses. For example Nanook’s family in Robert Flaherty’s film, is in fact not his family, but local Inuits who were paid by Flaherty to make the film. Actors, in other words.

    In the same film many, perhaps most of the scenes were either staged or recreated. The struggle with the seal was done with an already dead seal attached to Nanook’s line. Many of the scenes of the lifestyle being depicted had already largely disappeared from the Inuit life even before the film was made and some items had to be recreated for the film.

    If Moore were to do the same things, he would be soundly criticized for not making a documentary.

    Or take two of the most honored documentarians who have ever made documentaries: Albert and David Maysles. They come probably as close as possible to a style called cinema verité, or a film that depicts exactly what has happened as anyone (or even as possible). But what they did in a film like Salesman was to edit over 90 hours of film into a 90 minute documentary. With this much footage, they and their editor, Charlotte Zwerin, could have chosen to tell a variety of stories and focused on any of several different characters.

    That they chose to tell a story of a mostly unsuccessful salesman, who fails in his job does not mean that they could not have chosen to make the core of their film one of his colleagues who sold door to door very successfully. That they did not do so was a deliberate choice on how they wanted to present their view of reality. One could say that they had an agenda.

    And when Moore does the same thing, charges are leveled against him, that he makes ‘propaganda’.

    Except for some nature documentaries, I have a hard time calling to mind very many documentaries that don’t introduce a point-of-view to the film and are not open to some of the charges brought against Moore. This because if nothing else, the editing process never leaves everything in (or the film would be much longer than 90 minutes), meaning that it can always be rightly claimed that significant details have been omitted.

    For example, in this forum I read a criticism of For All Mankind, a documentary on the Apollo program and the moon landings that the documentary did not give sufficient attention to Apollo 13 and therefore presented a false picture of the program’s success. And I read another that the editing choice to put together film from several different missions, as though it was one continuous mission was deceptive. Were Moore to have done this he would have been criticized much more vigorously.—no doubt charged with ‘falsifying timelines.

    In short, I think that Moore is doing exactly what has been done (and is being done) in many, many (perhaps most) documentaries and by most of those making documentaries. That he is doing it on subjects about which many people have firm, emotional opinions, and does so successfully just means that his films are being considered by many people who actually don’t have much of an understanding of the form and set up benchmarks for him, that very few others could meet.

    Even some nature documentaries are edited in order to present an agenda. For example, Winged Migration, a stunningly beautiful achievement, very most certainly presents a point of view, though nowhere is anything falsified. About the only documentary that comes to my mind, that does not have a point, is Le ciel et la boue/The Sky Above, the Mud Below, about an expedition over the Owen Stanley mountains of New Guinea made back in the late 50s-early 60s.

    And my guess is that if I knew enough cultural anthropology, I’d probably find that the filmmakers here too, had an agenda.
     
  17. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

    Joined:
    May 19, 2002
    Messages:
    12,060
    Likes Received:
    0

    Brook, you are one up one me, :b as I have not seen Stevie—in fact, I had to look it up on IMDb in order to make sure that it was not a film about the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. [​IMG]

    And I really thought that only Michael Reuben (and pros like Scott, who see everything) saw more documentaries than I.

    But back to one of the points: the more I think about it, I can’t imagine that anyone without a passion of a particular subject would waste their time and effort making a documentary. It sure would not be for the money. You might get lucky, as did Jeffery Blitz who make Spellbound, but no way could anyone predict that a film about a spelling bee would rake in over $5M in box-office alone.

    I listened to an interview (NPR) where Blitz said that they financed the movie by maxing out about 18 credit cards and they were just happy to pay them all off. No one, but someone (or group) who had a passion for the subject, would take that kind of risk.

    As it happens I think that Spellbound presents a reasonably balanced picture, but I could well believe that it would be pretty easy for one of the participants (or their parents) to claim that they would look better, if only some material had not been edited out. Or in some cases, an entire community might claim that they would look better if additional footage had been included.
     
  18. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

    Joined:
    May 19, 2002
    Messages:
    12,060
    Likes Received:
    0

    Brook, you are one up one me, :b as I have not seen Stevie—in fact, I had to look it up on IMDb in order to make sure that it was not a film about the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. [​IMG]

    And I really thought that only Michael Reuben (and pros like Scott, who see everything) saw more documentaries than I.

    But back to one of the points: the more I think about it, I can’t imagine that anyone without a passion of a particular subject would waste their time and effort making a documentary. It sure would not be for the money. You might get lucky, as did Jeffery Blitz who make Spellbound, but no way could anyone predict that a film about a spelling bee would rake in over $5M in box-office alone.

    I listened to an interview (NPR) where Blitz said that they financed the movie by maxing out about 18 credit cards and they were just happy to pay them all off. No one, but someone (or group) who had a passion for the subject, would take that kind of risk.

    As it happens I think that Spellbound presents a reasonably balanced picture, but I could well believe that it would be pretty easy for one of the participants (or their parents) to claim that they would look better, if only some material had not been edited out. Or in some cases, an entire community might claim that they would look better if additional footage had been included.
     
  19. Brook K

    Brook K Lead Actor

    Joined:
    Feb 22, 2000
    Messages:
    9,467
    Likes Received:
    0


    Yes it is Lew. The filmmakers did exactly what they criticize in the film. They captured birds and caged them or hired others to do so. Then released them so they could be filmed. In other sequences, trained birds were used.

    While Moore's methods are not unique, he attracts criticism because of his high profile, a profile that he cultivates and that is an integral part of the marketing of his films. Other documentarians don't attract the interest of Moore so there films aren't under the spotlight in the same way.

    My problem isn't with his methods per se, but rather his style or perhaps better stated, his enthusiasm, for going for the joke over making intelligent points. He'd rather embarrass someone on camera to the cheers of an adoring public than really say something. He's far more P.T. Barnum than Upton Sinclair.
     
  20. Brook K

    Brook K Lead Actor

    Joined:
    Feb 22, 2000
    Messages:
    9,467
    Likes Received:
    0


    Yes it is Lew. The filmmakers did exactly what they criticize in the film. They captured birds and caged them or hired others to do so. Then released them so they could be filmed. In other sequences, trained birds were used.

    While Moore's methods are not unique, he attracts criticism because of his high profile, a profile that he cultivates and that is an integral part of the marketing of his films. Other documentarians don't attract the interest of Moore so there films aren't under the spotlight in the same way.

    My problem isn't with his methods per se, but rather his style or perhaps better stated, his enthusiasm, for going for the joke over making intelligent points. He'd rather embarrass someone on camera to the cheers of an adoring public than really say something. He's far more P.T. Barnum than Upton Sinclair.
     

Share This Page