Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Passion of the Docs

I was thinking recently about an article I wrote for MovieMaker earlier this year called “March of the Indies.” (By the way, is there anything more precious than a writer writing about his own work? I promise that there is a point here and that I am not gazing into a mirror as I type this) In the piece, I wrote that, in the face of the overwhelming, wearing sameness of Hollywood product, indies were making a comeback. But, what I realized the other night is that almost of the films I referred to as crossover hits—March of the Penguins, Mad Hot Ballroom, even smaller scale hits like The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill—were documentaries.

Much has been made of the increasing popularity of documentaries in recent years. The reason that people often site is that it is an unexpected, positive byproduct of reality TV. Much as I hate to credit reality TV for anything, I suppose there is an element of truth to it. But, the larger question is why we are suddenly attracted to the “real.” I do believe that a lot of the credit (or blame, as it were) lies with Hollywood. Movies have become increasingly bigger, louder, more formulaic and, most importantly, harder to relate to. Audiences are looking for something to identify with on screen and they seem to be finding it in the genre of the real. If “real” is in fact a new genre, then reality programming and docs are subsets of it, serving different purposes for their creators, but perhaps not for audiences. Reality programming often seems like nothing more than a cheaper way for networks to create formulaic programming while documentaries are associated with being more personal, serious-minded works. But, for viewers—and filmmakers—perhaps this line has blurred. The work of Morgan Spurlock is a prime example, and I don’t mean that in any sort of negative way. In any case, documentaries and reality TV seem to offer audiences easier access, a way to identify more directly with the material.

But, the question, to get back to documentaries, is why does it seem that more filmmakers are attracted to making documentaries. The reasons, I believe, are many: I’ll list the all in no order of importance:
1. They are cheap to make. True, the same can be said of a low budget fiction film, but it is even more so with a doc.
2. The rules are there are no rules. With documentary still young as a mainstream commercial force, there is no formula (not yet, anyway) for how to tell a story. Look at the different structures for films like Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins, Super Size Me and Capturing the Friedmans. The formula for Hollywood movies (and to an extent, even fictional indies) is etched in stone, but with doc, as long as you can find a subject that engages an audience, you are free to tell your story any way you like.
3. It is a form that invites you to make a personal film. In fact, that is what the audience expects, even demands, a greater sense of intimacy with the material. Hell, even a studio veteran like Sydney Pollack to make the doc Sketches of Frank Gehry about his friend, the architect. Pollack even shot the thing himself with a little digital camera to ensure a greater connection with his subject.

Documentaries have been a breath of fresh air, offering more original and often more risky products (it doesn’t hurt that they try to entertain as well). It remains to be seen if the studio system will come to view this as a challenge and try to make more personal films or if they will retreat further into a formulaic cocoon.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Could MTV Kill the Movie Star Too?

A June 27th item in The Hollywood Reporter by Tatiana Siegel caught my interest:

"In a move that signals MTV's commitment to making full-length movies for the smallest of screens, MTV Films production veteran David Gale is segueing to the newly created post of executive vp new media and specialty film content at MTV Networks."

Gale, who oversaw films like Hustle & Flow, Election, Napoleon Dynamite and Murderball, will now be in charge of bringing MTV's narrative presence to the Interney and other new media. As the article suggests, it is ironic that the network that made its name through short-form content-- the music video (remember when they showed those?)-- now looks to lead the mainstream charge in bringing long-form content to media that people associate with shorter segments.

However, it actually makes a lot of sense. MTV caters to a youthful demographic, one that is already comfortable and familiar with viewing content on the Internet, their cell phones, iPods, etc. For them, it would not be such an alien experience to view a 60- or 90-minute program in one of these formats.

I will be interested to see what kinds of content Gale develops for these formats. What type of programming does he (and the higher ups at MTV) think will be appealing in these formats? Will he try to tell different types of stories? Will they have a different visual style? How daring will it be?

If successful, MTV could help blaze a new trail for filmmakers looking to create content in these forms. But, best not to wait for MTV to set the standard for this type of content. Opportunities are better when it's still wide open-- like the Old West.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

High Tech Hams

Satellite radio DJs and programmers offer perhaps the best example to artists and other creative types looking to take advantage of the new technologies of their respective media. Earlier this year I spent the day at XM Studios in Washington D.C on a magazine assignment. On one floor there is a hallway, about a football field in length with roughly a hundred studios on each side. Ironically, with the state of the art technology at their disposal, most DJ/programmers, act as one-person production units. The stripped-down approach and the removal of ratings as the ultimate barometer for success has freed them from the strictures of content and format that plague conventional radio. Each DJ/programmer can program more personal playlists and, as a result, connect more directly with their audience. Who could resist the appeal of Tom Petty or Bob Dylan just sitting down and spinning some of their favorite tunes? These guys are capturing the spirit of the old ham radio operators, only with better equipment. They are channeling radio in its purest form.

Filmmakers could take a page out of their book, looking for ways to use digital technology (and, to beat a dead horse, online distribution) to inspire us to see the form in a new way, to find new ways to tell stories. Or simply to allow us to tell more personal, intimate stories. There are moviemakers who have already done this, but few have taken as wholehearted a leap as the satellite radio folk. True, they work in a corporate structure that provides them the safety net with which to do so, but the way they have embraced technology as a surce of artistic liberation is a strong example for all of us.