Rockin’ Docs

November 1, 1998


Thousands of documentarians, journalists, students and academics will converge to examine the past and look toward the future of the documentary form at IDC3, the Third International Documentary Congress (Oct.28-30).

Held by the International Documentary Association (IDA) with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the event will include seminars, workshops, screenings and panel discussions at the Academy’s headquarters in Beverly Hills.

Last held in 1995, the Congress attracted more than 1,200 delegates. IDC3 event organizers expect to eclipse that number, while still maintaining intimacy and accessibility for the participants. ‘It is not a festival, and it is not a market,’ says IDA executive director, Betsy McLean. ‘It is where people can talk and meet in a non-competitive way and deal with issues, aesthetics and content.’

New on-line and interactive delivery systems, as well as the perennial favorites of funding, social responsibility and censorship, are all issues set to be examined.

Two public evening screenings, featuring thematically related clips and panel discussions, are scheduled during the event. Oct. 28th will highlight ‘Docs Rock’, an exploration of rock-and-roll documentaries made over the last 30 years, and ‘Docs That Shook The World’ (Oct. 29th) will examine the most influential documentaries of the twentieth century.

‘We are trying to get people to see that this form is really critical to the shape that society has taken, and that major thinkers and artists in the field acknowledge their importance,’ says McLean.


Over the last ten years, the proliferation of music channels around the world has exploded. Add to that a discovery amongst specialty broadcasters and public stations that music brings in viewers, and the climate for music documentaries and performance specials has never been warmer.

Music docs and concert performances are usually promoted as either a special presentation, or within a documentary strand. The stature of the artist concerned is the primary determining factor when it comes to the cost of acquiring programs, but it is not the only consideration. Timing is also a point on which to negotiate. A property has a greater cache when it is marketed along with an upcoming concert tour or album release.

When it comes to acquiring music documentaries, David Kines, director of operations at Canadian specialties MuchMusic and MuchMoreMusic, says he’s after very unusual properties or ones that have special access to an artist. ‘Something like Elton John: Tantrums and Tiaras is exactly what we look for. It was original because it was shot on Hi-8 by his boyfriend,’ says Kines.

MuchMusic/Citytv has been in the music series game for a long time with their New Music property, running since 1979. It’s currently being re-vamped and marketed worldwide through distribution arm ChumCity International. Much is also in development with a new series called Speak Easy which will air on contemporary music channel MuchMoreMusic. The series will be comprised of intimate artist portraits featuring one-on-one interviews with a host, as well as videos and some documentary footage.

Carol Ann Dolan, supervising producer for A&E’s Biography reports that an episode on Rick Nelson was one of their highest rated shows of all time. She feels music figures are an important part of the series, although, because of the audience skew, rock-and-roll sometimes doesn’t fare as well as other music genres. ‘I know that country music titles will always do extremely well, but sometimes with pop music figures it is not always such a sure thing,’ says Dolan. She goes on to say that what makes docs on music artists stand out on Biography is that they can cover the span of contemporary music more extensively than any other channel can. ‘We can cover The Carpenters and Enrico Caruso in the same series because our mandate is so broad,’ says Dolan.

Rock or pop concert specials are increasingly a fixture among programs that PBS airs during pledge drives, and so far they have been performing extremely well. In the past 12 months, some of the biggest successes for PBS have been projects on Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison and Patty Labelle. ‘It is very important that we find a way to appeal to the baby boomers,’ says Alan Foster, VP fundraising and syndicated programs.

Foster cites the most important factor when programming rock performances on PBS as being whether or not they elicit an emotional response from the audience. ‘We would not go after the [Led Zeppelin] Page/Plant tour right now because it gets a different kind of audience response, and we don’t feel it works for us,’ says Foster.

Martin Morris, program producer at Hamburg-based pay channel Premiere Medien, illustrates that the performance special works much better on Premiere than long-form music documentaries do. ‘We show quite a lot of performance specials, but we don’t do a pure documentary on its own. Most of the viewer demand is for live performance,’ he says.

Pointing to VH1′s signature doc music series Behind the Music (which is selling well worldwide according to the broadcaster), Caroline Beaton, director of international program sales for MTV and VH1, says that it has at times been somewhat of an uphill battle. ‘Commercially it has been a successful strand, but it is not easy to place in its entirety because it requires a great degree of commitment from broadcasters,’ she says. ‘You have to accept that [programmers] may want to just cherry-pick the odd thing for a particular reason and may not want to dedicate the next ten weeks for a series,’ says Beaton.

She is extremely positive about the opportunities for her brand of music documentary in Eastern and Central Europe. ‘The deals on their own are not the biggest commercial deals that you do, but in terms of promotion and strong positioning of the brand, it is a very sophisticated market,’ says Beaton.

Since the genre took root in the fifties with the genesis of rock-and-roll, television has been there to chronicle the world behind the music, where ordinary fans are rarely admitted. From long-form doc to performance special, to road movie, to anthology, music programming is increasingly becoming a genre broadcasters can bank on.


Start out with an idea, a gut feeling, an emotional need to make the film, but don’t have a concrete plan for your final project, and make sure the film is about more than the music. Those seem to be the cardinal rules when making a documentary film about the phenomenon of rock music.

Al Maysles and his brother David were trailblazers in the rock doc genre. They made history with the cult hit Gimme Shelter (1970) when a Hell’s Angels member stabbed a fan at a Rolling Stones concert in Altamont. ‘The original thought was that we would go there and film the event and just see what happened, but right from the beginning we had an idea that something out of the ordinary was going to go on there,’ says Maysles.

The Maysles brothers cut their teeth on the genre in 1964 with What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA. ‘Those two contrasting films kind of represent the whole range of life in the 1960s. From happy-go-lucky to a killing,’ says Maysles.

Speaking of her innovative film Modulations, a doc about the world of techno music, director Iara Lee says, ‘It was a labor or love, an obsession, an adventure in exploration.’ The privately-financed film is currently being released theatrically in the U.S. by Strand Releasing and in Canada by Behaviour Distribution. Lee admits it was a long road to convince distribs to take a chance on a theatrical release because the subject is not mainstream. ‘Normally they might just discard the idea like there is no hope, but we got some good reviews and I guess the distributors just started to catch on,’ says Lee.

L.A. Johnson, producer of Jim Jarmusch’s film Year of the Horse, a chronicle of rock icon Neil Young and Crazy Horse (released theatrically by October Films in the U.S.), feels that this particular film grew from an emotional place. ‘We did it out of love, it was a project of art for us,’ says Johnson.

Johnson has had much experience with the rock doc genre, having worked on The Last Waltz and Woodstock. He feels it’s paramount to find a distributor who can work with a small film. ‘The problem you run into is that [the film] suffers in even getting a theater that it can run in. The key is having someone who will take the risk and can book those kinds of theaters,’ says Johnson.

Despite the continual challenges of launching such films theatrically, there are still filmmakers who make them and distributors who are willing to take a chance. As for what makes a rock doc a potential theatrical property, Al Maysles sums up the emotional response Gimme Shelter elicits: ‘There is just something that sticks to your ribs and your heart and your soul.’


When retail music videos first appeared on the market in the early eighties, they were primarily promo clips the record labels were producing, strung together with a few interviews. They’re undoubtedly more sophisticated now, yet the genre is still primarily a promotional opportunity for music companies seeking to boost sales.

‘Video is not the engine that drives the train. Video is one of the cars on the train, and it is an addition to what else is going on,’ says Sal Scamardo, senior director of specialty programming at Polygram Video.

The market is basically comprised of three genres: the rockumentary, mostly comprised of interviews with on-the-road footage; the anthology, meaning a historical multi-hour chronicle of a band or time period, usually released as a box set; and the performance video, made up of concert footage from a particular tour or event. The latter is by far the most popular in the category.

Rental is virtually non-existent when it comes to music video. From time to time a title will be released for rental, but it’s really not where the distributor’s bread is buttered. Nearly all music home video sales worldwide come from the sell-through market: mass music chains and commercial merchants.

Top U.S. video titles for 1997 were Polygram’s Hansen: Tulsa, Tokyo and the Middle of Nowhere at 318,000 units nationwide, and Warner Home Video’s Fleetwood Mac: Dance at105,000 units*. Sales can range anywhere from a few thousand for niche artists, to upwards of a half million units for the blockbusters. Generally, U.S. distribs look for numbers in the tens of thousands before a property can be considered a success.

Outside of North America, it is the more mature sell-through markets like the U.K., continental Europe, Australia and Japan where music video’s move large numbers. Here, too, success depends on whether the artist is hot, which is why most distributors monitor the music scene locally in each territory to catch onto homegrown trends, as well as plugging international titles.

The key to success in the home video market, aside from the necessity of a big name, is packaging and collectability; offering something that the consumer can’t get in the theater, on tv, or on a CD release alone. Polygram is currently releasing kiss’ Psycho Circus, the band’s first studio album in 20 years. Packaged together with the CD are a ten minute 3-D uncut video, a screen saver and a website CD-ROM. This type of multi-level release is a precursor of what’s to come when DVD takes off.

Because DVD’s are capable of holding much more information, distributors can put a half-hour documentary on the end of a concert, and add some multimedia components and lyrics, creating an original format with very little added production expense. ‘Music video is the perfect fit for the emerging DVD format because, for the first time, home video sound quality is as good as a CD. Being able to put so much information on that format adds tremendous benefit to the consumer,’ says Bud Brutsman, director of production and acquisitions for L.A.-based Brentwood Communications.

Although DVD was only really introduced to the U.S. market last year, total industry sales are approaching 1.5 million units, with projections for next year near 8 million units. Already some of the largest selling DVD’s on the market are ‘unplugged’ projects or concert footage.

‘It is a good happenstance that DVD is in the market now. We have an opportunity to reach many more people than those who would have normally gone to buy a video because they have this new piece of equipment to play it on,’ says Michael Olivieri, president of home video at New York-based Fox Lorber Associates. Olivieri goes on to say that those who are plugged in to the new technology are voracious in their appetite for new product, and that performance video, especially rock and contemporary music really appeals to the early DVD consumers.

As the computer world meets the audio world, meets the video world, formats will continue to merge over the next few years. The melding of music video, CD and multimedia will definitely give fans more bang for their buck, and aside from opening up new sales avenues, the new formats may result in original creative outlets for those bent on chronicling the lives, times and music of rock-and-rollers.

*U.S. video sales numbers obtained from U.S.-based on-line service SoundScan.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.