I only started watching documentary films when I started making them.
(post fra 19.05.16)
Ok, perhaps that statement requires a caveat: I only consciously started choosing to watch documentary films on a regular basis – on TV, online, and at the cinema – when I started making them.
Before that, when watching TV, I would just put on whatever seemed most interesting, without distinguishing between doc and fiction. But when choosing VoD or the cinema, the bar for watching documentary was higher than for drama or comedy. And I don’t exactly know why that is apart from feeling that the idea of watching documentaries felt a bit like the idea of doing homework. Probably a good idea, probably will make you smarter, but at the end of the day – its work. Deep in my brain was a little voice that said “But I don’t WANT to learn anything now! I want to be entertained!” despite the fact that many documentary films have often been far more entertaining, enjoyable, riveting and lasting than works of fiction.
This attitude is central to question I have asked myself on every film I have worked on: “What would make me watch this?”
There are so many wonderful, worthy, enlightening, profound, and entertaining films out there – how do I choose what to watch – and would I choose this film that I am working on if I had not been working on it? How would I convince myself so that I can also persuade others?
At NFI’s Lanseringsdag I learned how traditional film lovers are dying out literally and figuratively. And theatrical documentaries have never had a large share of the pie to begin with. To put things into context, in the UK (the second largest film market in the world after the US) a total of 98 documentary films were released in 2014, accounting for 14% of releases but just 0.3% of the total box office. Hindi language films had a 1.2% share of revenues with only 46 releases. (BFI Specialised Films report, Nov 2015)
The Lanseringsdag probably had the desired affect on me – I felt a bit saddened by what I learned, irrelevant and obsolete, but even more so I felt “called to action.” How can we create future generations of film lovers in our oversaturated media landscape? The million dollar question. Part of the answer lies in listening to “The Youth” and discovering what their interests are. But saying that makes me feel like grownups in the 80s trying to figure our what MTV was all about.
I think a more important part of the answer lies in remembering our own personal experiences that drew us into film. I looked back on my own film history and how I got to where I am today – a producer of documentary film. I had an honest look at my habits and preferences – and have been surprised by what I discovered.
Today, despite how alien many of the viewing preferences of 13 to 18 year-olds seem to me, I do share some of their habits. I am a net-junkie and watch you-tube, TV, and film online or on my phone. I haven’t owned a terrestrial TV in years and I once watched half a Netflix series one sunny day in the park. However, I also share traits of a 60 year old traditional cinema goer – I go to arts theatres and regularly read film reviews and trade journals. How did I get here?
Suburban New Jersey in the 80s. The sun rises over the Manhattan skyline in the morning and sets behind the ridge in the evening. In between, us kids watch TV. A LOT of TV. I don’t remember most of it. However, I do have a mental catalog of “New York 80s saxophone soundtracks.” I used to hate that sound, but now I cannot get enough of it.
As for film-viewing, we saw blockbusters on TV and we rented blockbusters from the video store. It was within walking distance from our house. In the beginning we also rented the video player. My older brother and I watched good movies (Indiana Jones, Star Wars, The Princess Bride, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Ghostbusters, The Dark Crystal, Labrynth.) And terrible movies (has anyone else seen the BMX drama, RAD?) We watched them on repeat, much the way that kids today only want to see Frozen 5000 times. Had my parents been thinking economically, they would have bought the videos like we begged them to, like our friends’ parents had. But I guess they were thinking about their sanity. Grateful for 3 day limits on rentals, or 1 day for new releases.
Teenage viewing was very different. We got cable TV when I was 13. Finally. I watched the entire first season of MTVs the Real World. My first “documentary” series binge. The first reality TV. What I liked about the Real World was how the characters tried to resolve disagreements and understand each other’s perspectives. Needless to say, I missed the point entirely. As it and other reality shows found their form and played up conflict and melodrama, I stopped watching.
Happily, at 14 I discovered FILM – CINEMA – ART by accident while channel surfing late one night. Having missed the intro, I had no idea what it was apart from French, but I was sucked in. Later on I figured out it was Monsieur Hire. Some nights later, I flicked passed the same channel. Yet another French film, this time in black and white. Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. These films were shown on Bravo, now known for the Real Housewives franchise, but it started its days as Arts and Film programming.
These discoveries were my entry into a new world. And it was the precisely the sense of discovery that was so important. No one told me about it or explained it to me. I found it myself and went looking for more information. I started buying Film Comment and Film Quarterly at Grand Central Station to read on the train home. I scoured reviews and went to arts cinemas. On my own. I loved feeling that the world was so much bigger than myself. That there were so many worlds out there to discover. I started to feel more real the more my life resembled these films.
According to BFIs qualitative study of avid cinema-goers, I fit the description of an avid cinema-goer. And I have taken a very predictable route to get here. They have actually mapped out the “film journey” as they call it, and my experience mirrors it precisely. According to the BFI, the journey begins by watching mainstream films between the ages of 4 and 11: film as entertainment. Check. As a teenager, you begin to look beyond the mainstream and film begins to help define who you are: film as identity. Check. As a young adult, you start to subject films to critical analysis and look for things outside your comfort zone: film as culture. I took Film Studies 101 as a freshman in college. Check. According to BFI there is often a particular film that prompts a move into this stage. For me it would probably have been Almodovar’s “All about my mother.” Check. And this film journey culminates with film as career – a “dream come true” gained through sacrifice and hard work. Check Check Check.
According to insights from Lanseringsdagen – this journey is not being embarked on by many young people today. Their attention has been captured by other mediums. And they no longer need film to introduce them to the rest of the world – they have grown up with the internet. But the sense of discovery, of awakening, of surprise – this is universal and timeless – and not tied to any particular medium. Film will not die out just as books and radio have not died out. But if we want to draw new generations of film-fanatics, we have to work a bit harder to reach them at the right time. Particularly when it comes to documentary.
As an avid-cinema goer with a “scattergun” approach, documentary surprisingly did not take up much place on my radar. It belonged to a category of things I should have more of – like porridge or sunscreen. When Bowling for Columbine was released in theaters in 2003, I did not want to go because (A) it was a documentary and (B) it was about a horrific episode. Fortunately my wiser, worthier friends forced me join them. The theater was packed. Everyone had a pint of beer and popcorn. They laughed, shouted and threw popcorn at the screen during some parts, and were soberly silent at others. It was like a screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, only with actual horror. It was a revelation that a film tackling such a difficult subject could do so with such warmth, humor, and humanity, bringing a room full of strangers together. Afterwards I understood things about myself and my American upbringing that I never would have discovered had I not seen that film.
Looking back more closely, I realize my formative years were actually filled with documentaries and documentary series: Ken Burns “Jazz”, Jennifer Foxes “An American Love Story.” I followed every episode and saw their interviews on Charlie Rose. As a teenager I wasn’t thinking about genres, I just wanted to see whatever seemed most interesting, what offered the greatest potential for discovery.
However, it is only in the last few years that I have regularly, consciously, started to watch documentaries. Which is why, as a relatively recent convert, I am in a rather unique position to work with outreach. I know how hard it can be to reach people like me.
According to a highly anecdotal and non-conclusive survey of my peers in the industry, this is true for some of you as well. How many regularly choose “entertainment” over documentary when deciding what to watch at home or at the cinema? Many. Which is why context is so important. A cinematic release can be a huge lift for a film, in terms of buzz and promotion, but it is not necessarily where we build our audience. People who choose to see documentaries at the cinema are most likely already avid film-goers. If we want to draw new people to the genre, we may have to slip it into them when they are least aware of it – like a kale chocolate milkshake. And encourage more popcorn-throwing at theaters.