news Documentary Filmmakers Need to Stop Saying They Make Documentaries — Column

On his recent promotional tour for “Pinocchio,” Guillermo del Toro went on more than one tirade about how “animation is a medium, not a genre,” and more than children’s entertainment. That’s a message that documentaries could have used at the 2023 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, which provided a stark reminder that the non-fiction community needs to start talking about its work in broader terms than the so-called “genre” that limits its appeal.

Blockbuster documentaries about treasured icons, thrilling subjects, and complicated pop-culture figures were everywhere at Sundance. For the most part, they came with distribution: Apple had “STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie” and “Steph Curry: Underrated,” Amazon premiered “Judy Blume Forever,” and Netflix brought diving survival saga “The Deepest Breath.”

Then there was… well, pretty much, everything else. No disrespect to any of the aforementioned titles (I haven’t seen them all), but it was disheartening to find that the festival’s most exciting documentary undertakings — and there were plenty — remained in limbo, as buyers sought the projects with obvious commercial appeal.

The market is saturated with doc-as-product. Word in Park City was Sundance programmers saw so many biographical documentaries they had a hard time choosing the right ones. (That may be why high-profile projects on Joan Baez and Donna Summer will premiere later this month in Berlin.) The market reverse-engineers this kind of work with star power, just as it develops narratives with bankable stars.

This isn’t a surprise; we’ve witnessed the so-called “golden age” of documentaries also marginalize the greatest examples of the form. As I mulled the challenging market for the medium ahead of this week’s column, documentary reporter Anthony Kaufman dropped his own smart breakdown of the marketplace challenges for IDA; then came Reeves Wideman’s extensive look at the commercialization of the medium at Vulture.

With the rise of consumer interest in documentaries, blurry ethical standards and factory-like product fixated on the easiest wins followed — but there is no shortage of first-rate documentary storytelling. Companies ranging from XTR (a big spender that invests in an array of risky material) to Field of Vision (an activist-driven organization that would never bother with a sanitized subject) fuel a tremendous amount of top-notch work. Lineups at documentary festivals like IDFA and CPH: DOX are a dynamic field loaded with major achievements.

At Sundance, buyers weren’t interested. With the exception of Magnolia acquiring the energetic, black-and-white sex-worker portrayal “Kokomo City” (the standout winner from this year’s NEXT section), and MTV Documentary Film grabbing the heartbreaking romantic two-hander “The Eternal Memory,” the most intimate, personal, and boundary-pushing documentaries at this festival became victims of their own ambition.

Part of the problem is these films are first understood as documentaries, instead of great movies. Filmmakers whose work goes beyond the non-fiction formulas should eliminate the word “documentary” from their vocabulary. Sure, tell people it’s a true story — and make sure to adhere to the ethical standards therein — but first, tell them everything else.

“People want tidy stories,” Cinetic documentary seller Jason Ishikawa told me earlier this week. “They want messages. But life is messy and unfinished. Narratives get much more of a pass. We love it when directors make personal cinema, but when it’s a doc, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s so small, nobody will watch it.’”

A still from Kim’s Video by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by the press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Kim’s Video”

Several documentaries Ishikawa represented at the festival, including “Joonam,” a first-person look at an Iranian-American woman interrogating her family’s past, and “Kim’s Video,” the labyrinthine saga of the ill-fated New York movie rental store, remain homeless. They’re both poignant, engrossing works rich with surprising details that any number of audiences could embrace because their appeal isn’t based in being documentaries: “Joonam” is a touching look at inter-generational immigrant identity, while “Kim’s Video” is essentially a riveting detective saga. Audiences can figure out that these stories also happen to be true later on.

Other notable documentaries from this festival still seeking U.S. buyers include “A Still Small Voice,” which follows a spiritual care worker at Mount Sinai Hospital, “5 Seasons of a Revolution,” an absorbing video diary of activists during the Syrian Civil War, and “King Coal,” an artful look at the existential crisis faced the culture of coal mining through the lens of Central Appalachia. These stories could appeal to audiences for everything they offer beyond being documentaries: complex emotional journeys, absorbing backdrops, and ambitious storytelling that could drive word of mouth. When filmmakers — and the industry — see them first and foremost as docs, they’re predestined to flounder.

Kokomo City

“Kokomo City”

Magnolia Pictures/D. Smith

This problem isn’t only evident at Sundance. Up the road at the Slamdance Film Festival, the 2023 winning documentary pushed the boundaries of the form while touching on a timely subject with the makings of a streaming hit. “Starring Jerry as Himself” revolves around the endearing and enigmatic story of Chinese immigrant Jerry Hsu, a divorced retiree in Florida who serves as the unreliable narrator of his own spy movie. Without spoiling too much, director Law Chen constructs a clever subversion of genre storytelling akin to “The Mole Agent” as Jerry’s account of getting enlisted by the Chinese police to help combat a money laundering scheme baffles his relatives.

The movie shifts between Jerry’s outrageous story and his actual mundane existence, building toward a bittersweet finale with universal resonance. If “The Tinder Swindler” can get whip up Netflix subscribers, “Starring Jerry as Himself” could just as easily drive conversations about elderly abuse and the immigrant experience, with its escapist framework as a necessary Trojan Horse. (In a clever nod to its boundary-busting concept, the festival’s jury bestowed the movie with both the documentary grand jury prize and acting award for Hsu.)

Visit Films sales agent Ryan Kampe has been comparing “Starring Jerry as Himself” to 2018 Sundance doc breakout “Three Identical Strangers,” which generated powerful word-of-mouth thanks to its conspiratorial hook. So far, nobody’s biting. Kampe keeps playing up the element of surprise in the movie. “The movie has a spoiler, which is cool,” he said. “How many documentaries have a spoiler? Very rarely does a distribution company have a chance to release something that’s just different from everything out there.”

He feared a trickle-down effect of conservatism among buyers. “Amazon, Netflix, Searchlight — they’re not going to buy these movies at Sundance or anywhere else,” Kampe said. “They’re going to pay $20 million for the big movie. I get it. Their jobs are at risk, so how are they going to take big swings?” Here’s how: De-emphasize “documentary,” focus on story, and its truth becomes even more engaging.

To my mind, “The Eternal Memory” director Maite Alberdi’s previous movie “The Mole Agent” was the most heartwarming spy movie in years. Dutch documentary “Don’t Leave Me,” about a couple of lovable alcoholics who live in the woods, was a masterful buddy movie. Years ago, I described Robert Greene’s “Kati With an I,” a portrait of his teen cousin coming of age, as having the best performance of the year — since clearly his subject played up her situation for the camera. Greene still says he looks at documentaries in narrative terms, with subjects who perform for the camera.

This logic can work wonders for pushing documentaries to a higher level of awareness. My favorite Sundance moment came in 2010, when both “Catfish” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” became hot sales titles even though (or because?) few people could discern exactly how much of what they showed was real. “Catfish” appeared to portray a gullible young man getting tricked into an online romance, but the order of events was murky at best. Banksy’s portrait of eccentric overnight artist star Thierry Guetta in “Exit” sure made it look like he was put on a performance for the camera.

It didn’t matter: These movies delivered riveting narrative arcs, rich characters, and provocative themes. The ambiguity made them all the more substantial. They whipped up conversation because they were genuine cinematic experiences.

After word of mouth that lasted for months,“Exit” eventually scored an Oscar nomination. “Catfish” sold in Park City to Relativity and turned its directors into rising Hollywood stars. I still get a kick out of how the original trailer for the movie didn’t use the word “documentary” once. “Not based on a true story,” the tagline read. “Just true.”

Brilliant marketing, but filmmakers must also consider their work in these terms. Big streamers have grown wary of documentaries that appear to exist outside of their safety zones. While Magnolia could work wonders with the ravishing and playful “Kokomo City,” it remains to be seen if the movie will be able to make its way onto Hulu as part of the distributor’s output deal with the streamer. Tue Disney-owned Hulu favors neither documentaries nor black-and-white movies, nor much of anything dealing with sex.

“This is a particularly challenging time for sales across all entertainment because of the uncertainty in the sort of corporate world of streaming,” said Bryn Mooser, the XTR founder. Mooser’s giant swings when it comes to documentaries, including the company’s massive new documentary production studio in L.A. and a rapid-fire production model, may seem overly ambitious. Still, you have to appreciate the entrepreneurial energy he brings to an unpredictable field that relies on fickle creative impulses.

Even he acknowledged the threat at hand. “It’s much more difficult to find partners to finance these types of films if they don’t find homes,” he said. “There is a real danger if streaming platforms stop buying them.” However, he holds hope for a future stabilization of the streaming economy. “As a funder and creator, I’m optimistic that this will turn around once there’s better clarity about where the streamers are headed,” he said.

He believes reticent buyers have created a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. “I think that there’s great data out there showing documentaries can perform super well and often their cost is lower than narrative stuff,” he said. “But we need some wins on the more artistic ones out there to prove they can do it.”

In order to do that, documentary filmmakers have to look beyond what’s important and true. Find the other genre terms that could elevate it: Thriller. Comedy. A powerful look at family bonds, an eye-opening depiction of the American dream… that also happens to be a documentary.

The most optimistic documentary evangelist I asked about this problem was Fifth Season’s Kevin Iwashina, and for good reason: His company (previously known as Endeavor) found some huge commercial wins in recent years, including the sale of the “Hamilton” recording to Disney+. He now heads Fifth Season’s Documentary division. “What’s new is that documentary is being respected as a monetizeable form of commercial entertainment,” he said. “How do we evaluate the growing pains of becoming a more mature business? There’s a lot of ‘sky is falling,’ but we’ve only just created the sky.”

As usual, I invite readers to share their feedback into the challenges outlined in this week’s column and offer solutions of their own:

Check out earlier columns here.