After a hectic month prepping for and then attending MIP TV it was great to spend some time at the Tribeca Film Festival last week. Tribeca has become one of the premier festivals for documentary features and this year’s selection was in many ways their most interesting ever. However, with the experience of MIP TV fresh in my mind I couldn’t help but notice the absence of any real program for one hour documentaries and non fiction pilots. It felt like it was feature length docs or bust. This approach is great for film festival audiences and the egos of documentary filmmakers, but not so much for the bottom lines of these feature length documentaries.
The harsh reality of the non fiction market place, including the United States, is that dvd has pretty much collapsed as a reliable revenue stream for almost all independent releases and v.o.d. has not come close to making up the difference. At the same time broadcasters of all shapes and sizes have an overwhelming demand for series over every other form of non fiction. This means that the vast majority of feature length documentaries are doomed to minimal earnings. Only a very few will receive the kind of theatrical release that would raise their profile enough to have a shot at the few remaining tv slots set aside for them. So why aren’t more filmmakers creating product that meets the content demands of the marketplace? Good question. Sometimes the material doesn’t lend itself to the one hour or series format and producers wade into the fray with their eyes wide open and a real commitment to their subject. But I also think that there is an inherent bias against these other formats. Could the documentary film making community, including festival programmers, just assume that the feature length doc is the only format that matters? Programming with this as your premise might be good for film festivals, but not so much for the bottom lines of documentary producers.