SUNDANCE A DOC BONANZA: new deals, new projects for fest directors...
March 1, 1999

SUNDANCE A DOC BONANZA: new deals, new projects for fest directors

Usually theatrical documentaries struggle to compete against their fictional counterparts, but the tables were turned at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Docs such as American Movie (director: Chris Smith), Sex: the Annabel Chong Story (director: Gough Lewis), and American Pimp (directors: Albert and Allen Hughes) generated as much buzz as any dramatic title. Not even the presence of Hollywood stars could tip the scale. The celebrities winning most enthusiastic recognition on Park City’s streets were such real-life characters as violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg from Speaking in Strings (director: Paolo di Florio), writer Ken Kesey from The Source (director: Chuck Workman), and Internet pioneer Justin Hall from Home Page (director: Doug Block), not to mention porn actress Annabel Chong.

With 16 docs screening in competition, another half dozen as special presentations, plus a handful at Slamdance, it was possible to fill a week’s docket with nothing but non-fiction.

Even more encouraging, many of the films seem destined to flourish outside the festival circuit. The Grand Jury prize winner, American Movie, was acquired by Sony for a reported US$1 million. On the Ropes, directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgan, entered the festival with deals in place with Fox Lorber for theatrical and TLC for broadcast. Rory Kennedy’s American Hollow and Jessica Yu’s Living Museum are both scheduled to air on HBO, and several others including Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood (director: Michael Epstein), are headed for PBS broadcasts.

The festival’s prize-giving gave spotlight to some of the less-hyped films. Emiko Omori, after 30 years of filmmaking, was named best cinematographer for her work on two festival entries, Regret to Inform and her own film about Japanese internment camps, Rabbit in the Moon (scheduled for broadcast by PBS’ POV). First-time filmmaker Barbara Sonnenborn, who re-examined the Vietnam War through the eyes of American and Vietnamese widows, won best director for Regret to Inform. The Freedom of Expression award went to Stanley Nelson for The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords and the Filmmaker’s Trophy went to Jon Else for Sing Faster. Nicole Cattell’s half-hour Come Unto Me: The Faces of Tyree Guyton won an honorable mention in the shorts category and will be broadcast on Cinemax. Genghis Blues, a soulful film about a blind American blues musician who travels to the remote region of Tuva for a throat-singing competition, won the Audience Award.

There was ample evidence that the future of film is video. Over three-quarters of the docs originated on tape, with mini-DV being the most favored format. Director Paola di Florio got started on Speaking in Strings when her husband (then boyfriend) Peter Rader bought a mini-DV camera and offered to shoot for her. ‘If I’d waited to raise money to shoot film,’ she said, ‘I might still be waiting.’

Another discernable trend is the back-and-forth movement of filmmakers between fiction and non-fiction. Chris Smith and the Hughes Brothers, the makers of American Movie and American Pimp, respectively, were previously known for their narrative features American Job and Menace to Society. Hollywood is actively courting directors Burstein and Morgan to adapt On the Ropes into a narrative. ‘A week after Sundance there was an A-list director attached to the project,’ said Morgan. Source director Chuck Workman and dop Omori are also preparing new fiction features.

But back in the doc-specific mode, most of the Sundancers are already deep into new projects. Di Florio is preparing a behind the scenes look at a drag performance of Chekov’s Three Sisters to be shot next fall. Home Page director Doug Block, who makes extra money by videotaping weddings, plans to turn that footage into an examination of the illusions and realities of marriage. Return with Honor director Frieda Lee Mock has four films in the works, profiling humorist Annie Lamott, musician Frank Zappa, modern dancer Bella Lewitzky, and Harlem renaissance writer Dorothy West. Christine Fugate, whose doc Girl Next Door about porn star Stacey Valentine made a splash at Slamdance, is developing a multi-part series on plastic surgery.

Despite the relentless press attention given to deal-making at Park City, filmmakers unanimously say the best experience of the festival is getting audience feedback. ‘We spent three years making On the Ropes in virtual isolation,’ said Burstein, ‘then the day after it premiered I heard people talking about it on the bus.’ Thom Powers (Thom Powers produced Breasts (Cinemax) and Private Dicks (HBO) with Meema Spadola).

DISCOVERY AND THC EXTEND THEIR BRANDS TO VACATION PACKAGES: cablers compete for airfare in addition to eyeballs

Discovery and The History Channel have moved their competition from the airwaves to the open road. In February, each announced worldwide travel as its latest venture in brand expansion. The History Channel has partnered with New York-based IST Cultural Tours to offer tours entitled ‘Enlightened Journeys,’ while Discovery has linked up with Philadelphia-based travel company Rosenbluth International to launch a new endeavor called Discovery Travel.

According to Neal Lieberman, Discovery’s director of new business development, vacations with Discovery Travel range from US$800-$8,000. He says they hope to attract everyone from young adventurers wanting to snorkel in the Caribbean for a week, to empty nesters with enough disposable income for a 20-day tour of Australia. Fourteen destinations have been selected so far, including Egypt, Israel, China and Mexico, with plans for up to 50.

Lieberman says the locations were selected partly because they are known to be popular with travellers, but also because Discovery has either done or plans to do programming about those areas. ‘The mission of our company has always been to explore your world and satisfy your natural curiosity. We’ve been able to do that through television, and now this is an opportunity to let you do that in person.’

The cost of a THC ‘Enlightened Journey’ varies from $3,500 for a nine-day tour of Greece to $6,500 for a two-week visit to Italy, says Jonathan Paisner, A&E’s manager of consumer product development. At this point, thc programming is not explicitly linked to the tours, but that will change. ‘Following the ideas and thoughts and theories that come out of a documentary, creating a tour around that, and bringing the expert that you see on television onto the tour with you, that’s where we see this going in the not too distant future,’ Paisner says.

In addition to Italy and Greece, thc offers six other journeys, to France, Central Europe, China, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. Each tour has a specific theme, such as ‘Michelangelo’s World’ in Italy or ‘Treasures of the Nile’ in Egypt. Various historians, archaeologists and scholars offer words of wisdom in their respective areas of expertise. Paisner says these tours are largely aimed at baby boomers, seasoned travellers looking for a different experience.

The History Channel has linked its brand to travel before, but only on a domestic scale. Since last year, THC and History America Tours have been working together to offer theme excursions in the U.S. At the high end of the scale, Paisner says, are Civil War steamboat cruises on the Mississippi, which can cost up to $5,000 for eight days. Land tours, such as a ‘Lewis & Clark’ trip through Montana, are less at $1,600-$2,000 for a week. The target market is the 55+ crowd.

As an added note in the ancillary market game, thc and Rutledge Hill Press recently released Civil War Journal: The Legacies, the third volume in a series of three based on the THC series Civil War Journal. The $29.95 hardcover was edited by historians William C. Davis, Brian C. Pohanka and Don Troiani. Susan Rayman

ALBERT MAKES TRANSATLANTIC LEAP TO MANDALAY: feature-length wrestling doc with New Line in the works

Justin Albert, formerly of TransAtlantic Films in London (Greek Fire, History’s Turning Points), has joined Los Angeles-based Mandalay Media Arts as president, a position created specifically for him. mma set out to woo Albert last year and he joined the company in January. ‘I saw in Mandalay an opportunity to marry Hollywood with factual programming for the first time,’ Albert says, adding it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

MMA’s gain is TAF’s loss. Albert leaves behind ten years of history with TAF, as well as his position as managing director of the 30-year-old company. It was his work there that caught MMA’s attention. ‘Justin had pioneered a number of relationships with international broadcasters, which went beyond the simple and obvious deal-making arrangements,’ says mma co-chairman Barry Clark. ‘It’s those kinds of talents we feel confident he will bring to mma.’

Albert’s younger sister, Corisande Albert, has stepped into his shoes at TransAtlantic. Corisande has been with TAF for the past five years. She was director of business affairs before becoming managing director.

Over at Mandalay, Albert will have his hands full. One of the big projects this year is a feature-length doc called The Hard Way, ‘an intimate look at the world of professional wrestling.’ Both New Line Cinema and the World Championship Wrestling Association (a division of Time-Warner) are on board for the US$3 million film. Clark says they hope to complete the film, which recently began shooting, before the end of the year. George Butler, of Pumping Iron I and II fame, is the director. Susan Rayman

PBS MONKEES AROUND: pubcaster ordered to pay $47 million in home video ruling

Last month a U.S. jury ordered PBS to pay former Monkee star Michael Nesmith close to US$47 million for attempting to drive the ex-pop idol’s video distribution company into bankruptcy. In 1990, Nesmith signed a deal with the pubcaster to distribute the PBS Home Video Line, license the PBS trademark and acquire home video rights from individual producers for dozens of programs.

Despite healthy retail sales, Nesmith’s company, Pacific Arts, was losing money by 1993 to high costs. He decided to sell the rights to his $15 million-earning video library, and planned to use the proceeds to pay off royalties and debts.

According to Nesmith, PBS gave written consent to help him rebuild the business, but then negotiated behind his back with several other potential distributors. Nesmith also contends that PBS persuaded producers to collectively tear up their distribution contracts on Columbus Day. U.S. courts are closed on federal holidays, so Nesmith was unable to save his business by filing for bankruptcy protection. PBS now harvests $27 million in annual profit from the video distribution rights (which the network splits with Turner Home Entertainment).

The court’s final decision not only rejected PBS’ initial breach-of-contract claim, but also upheld Nesmith’s counter-claim of the same charge, in addition to fraud and contract interference. Pacific Arts was awarded almost $15 million, as well as close to $30 million in punitive damages. Nesmith was awarded $3 million personally.

The pubcaster’s official reaction to the court’s decision? Director of corporate communications, Stu Kantor summed it up: ‘PBS firmly believes that the facts and the law in this case merited a verdict in our favor, and we’re frankly shocked at the outcome. PBS is taking all necessary steps to mount a vigorous appeal with every confidence that we will prevail.’ Jocelyn Longworth


The European Commission has called for submissions to be made regarding its ongoing investigation into the BBC’s joint-venture with Flextech Television – UKTV.

The investigation, which was instigated last year, is seeking to establish whether the use of bbc program properties for UKTV channels (UK Horizons, UK Play, UK Style, UK Arena) is in any way anti-competitive.

A Flextech TV spokeswoman says the procedure is nothing unusual. ‘It is a standard regulatory check by the EC,’ she said. ‘Our lawyers have looked at this and we are sure we aren’t contravening any rules.’

Observers agree that the investigation is primarily a technical one and unlikely to lead to an unbundling of the partnership. However, it is possible that UKTV’s dealings with the BBC’s archive may need to be revised.

That said, the EC is currently hot on the trail of European public broadcasters it believes are operating anti-competitively. Investigations into pubcasters in Spain, Italy and France are all aimed at ensuring that commercial competitors are not being unfairly disadvantaged by publicly-funded subsidies. Andy Fry


They’re in their eighties and nineties, the women and men who actively and passively fought the Nazi dictatorship and are the stars of Nein! Zeugen des Wiederstandes in M-nchen 1933-45 (No! Witnesses of Resistance in Munich 1944-45). ‘If their story isn’t told now it never will be’, says producer/director Katrin Seybold. ‘The more necessary the film, the harder it is to find the money.’

In the case of Nein! a third of the total budget (US$133,000) came from the City of Munich, and the rest from Seybold to be replaced through regular contract work with German broadcaster ZDF. ‘I have video distribution, theatrical distribution and world sales but I don’t think I’ll make back a third of my costs,’ says Seybold. ‘I don’t see any market at all for documentaries. I see a desert.’

Wandering around the market portion of the 49th Berlinale, talking to various distributors, all of them proud of their documentary offerings and the interest they’re attracting, no extra sales were tracked for documentaries at the festival. It’s confirmed by Thomas Frickel, head of the German Association of Documentary Filmmakers (A.G.Dok): ‘There are no direct sales at the market. People scout, look, go home, discuss with the boss, read the catalog and then buy.’

German filmmakers, he says, via the appetites of the German public and commercial tv, are interested only in what happens within Germany’s borders. ‘Many foreign themes are ruled out. We are forced to make German subjects and they find little resonance in the international market.’

Several buyers cited the same problem. But they also complained about heavy-handed narrative styles, self-indulgence, over-length and what one called a ‘I’m-a-creative-genius-and-you-have-to-watch-my-genius-mentality.’

If German documentary-makers have an image/financing problem, life is easier (easier being relative) for the Austrians.

Paul Rosdy and Joan Grossman are the team behind Zuflucht in Shanghai (The Port of Last Resort) which tells the story of nearly 20,000 European Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai to escape the Nazis. The two-thirds Austrian and one-third U.S. (thanks to HBO) production is being repped by the Austrian Film Commission. Managing director Martin Schweighofer says Austria’s lack of size means there is more continuity in documentaries than features.

‘We have to look for a niche because we’re a small country with a small production base. We regularly produce docs aimed for the cinema. While Berlin is not a deal-fever market, we’ve had interest in our films from the U.S., the Netherlands and many others. Documentaries have a serious standing in Austria.’

Paul Rosby agrees. ‘There is lots of funding support to balance Hollywood. There are subsidies. It’s still difficult, but public money is available. Austria is a very good label. The best label is Vienna. The cultural image opens doors.’

More to the point, Zuflucht is an informative and entertaining film. Its screening kept the vast majority of its audience to the very end. Rosdy, having lived and worked in the States, admires the American ‘if-you-want-it-you-gotta-get-it attitude,’ fairly rare for a European doc-maker.

Switzerland’s major doc contribution to the fest was Closed Country, Switzerland, a look at how the country responded to the influx of Jews seeking to escape Nazi Germany. According to Micha Schiwow, managing director of the Swiss Film Center, the film ‘has had a very good response. There have been a lot of questions and interest, especially from Germany and France with regard to theatrical release.’

As in Austria, documentary-makers have it better in Switzerland where there are more theatrical releases and subsidies provided by the Ministry of Culture.

The proliferation of thematic channels, both cable and satellite, throughout Europe means most of the German-language docs at this year’s Berlinale stand a chance of getting aired sometime, somewhere. But with the exception of Zuflucht and Nein!, the majority of films were from the ‘auteur’ school of documentary production. Marketing plays an essential part in the business, and the difference between those films, filmmakers and distributors who had grasped the fact was palpable.

As to the awards, the most notable doc winner was The Cruise, from American filmmaker Bennett Miller, which was presented the Wolfgang Staudte Award for a director’s first or second film. The award is rarely granted to a documentary. The Berlin screening was the film’s international premiere and it played to packed theaters during the fest. Simon Kingsley

A.G. DOK TAKES A STAND AT THE BERLINALE: German doc association put up a fight for space

A.G. Dokumentarfilm scored a victory at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, which ran from February 10-21. After three years of asking politely, the German independent documentary filmmakers’ association finally succeeded in securing a stand at the 49th Berlinale – but it took a court case to get there.

‘Last year when we asked the festival, it was refused,’ says Thomas Frickel, A.G. Dok’s general secretary. ‘They told us that there’s no space for us and that the festival is not a documentary festival.’ But Berlinale director Moritz de Hadeln says A.G. Dok was never ‘not permitted’ to have a booth. ‘They were just requested to find some sort of arrangement with the other German stands in a specific location where the other German stands are, due to a lack of space.’

Still, when Frickel got the same reaction again this year, he wasn’t willing to settle for anything less than an independent stand for A.G. Dok. ‘We went to court and wanted to force them to give us the stand,’ he says.

Each party appeared before a judge on February 2 to plead its case. According to Frickel, it became clear very quickly that at least 25% of the films shown at the Berlinale are docs. ‘Not in the competition, but in the sections – Panorama, the International Forum of New Cinema and a series of German films… and the same thing with the market itself. Around one-fourth to one-third of the films shown in the international film market of the Berlin festival are docs.’

The Berlinale and A.G. Dok settled before the judge reached a decision. ‘We got a stand of 13 square metres at the place where we wanted to have the stand, and everything was fine afterwards. And now I think it’s clear that documentaries have a place in the Berlin Film Festival and also in the market,’ Frickel says.

A.G. Dok’s presence didn’t make much of an impression on de Hadeln. ‘They were there, so what? I don’t know what kind of business they made of their stand, that’s none of my business. I hope they enjoyed the place,’ he says.

But A.G. Dok’s participation at this year’s Berlinale was a bonus for independent producers, filmmakers and distributors of German docs, who otherwise would not have had a presence. Joerg Langer, head of sales for Berlin-based Athos Films Distributions, says his company couldn’t afford to have a stand of its own, so he was pleased to have A.G. Dok there as an umbrella organization. ‘It helps us, on one hand, to do promotion for the German documentary and for the German film itself, and on the other hand it helps us to sell films and to make contacts,’ he says. Susan Rayman (with files from


U.K. regulator, the Independent Television Commission, has fined Channel 4 £150,000 for a series of scenes in the documentary Too Much Too Young: Chickens which were supposed to show rent boys being approached by clients, but were in fact reconstructions.

The speedy sanction follows last year’s £2 million fine for Carlton which was imposed after a series of scenes in drug-running film The Connection were found to be faked.

The Chickens scandal has once again stirred up concern over the checks and balances on U.K. factual productions. Last year, C4 was forced to pull a film called Daddy’s Girl just when it emerged that it had been victim of a hoax during the course of filmmaking.

The itc said there were ‘clear failings in the commissioning process and supervision of [Chickens].’ It underlined its ‘continuing concern for the highest standards of veracity in factual programs.’ Andy Fry

SUMMIT ATTENDEES WEIGH IN: response to the RealScreen Summit means a repeat likely in 2000

Higher than expected attendance and generally positive feedback means that the RealScreen Summit, held this year February 16-17 in Washington, D.C., is likely to become an annual event.

In total, 527 attendees participated, including 240 from the production sector, 193 from the broadcast sector, 32 distributors and 30 representatives from production services. While the bulk of participants (392 of them) hailed from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia/New Zealand and South America were also represented in smaller numbers. A greater international presence is one of the goals for the Summit in 2000.

‘I was thrilled at the turnout,’ says Shelley Middlebrook, VP and group publisher, RealScreen. ‘Having only started the magazine a year and a half ago, it was truly rewarding for me and the rest of the RealScreen staff.’

While the main sessions were well attended, participants noted that round-table discussions at breakfast and frequent ‘mixing breaks’ during the two days offered invaluable networking opportunities. Attendees were also appreciative of the short duration and location, leaving them with more days in the week to set up meetings with companies in the vicinity – Discovery, pbs and National Geographic most notably.

As for the sessions themselves, participant feedback generally favored the candid tone of day two over day one, and there were calls to aim for smaller panels and deeper content next time out, facilitated perhaps by moderators keeping a tighter leash on panelists and topics tending more towards the specific than the general.

In addition to bumping up the non-American content for Summit 2000, plans for next year could also include concurrent, sector-specific sessions as well as a day of Master Classes designed for producers. Attendance numbers are expected to close in on 750.

Washington will remain the HQ for next year’s event, with dates and locations forthcoming. In the meantime, executive summaries of the sessions at the first RealScreen Summit will be posted this month at

MORE UK MUSICAL CHAIRS: Grimsdale to BBC, Cleary & Pitt to indie production

After a confusing round of musical chairs among senior factual commissioning editors last year, the U.K. production sector is bracing itself for a similar runaround in 1999.

Following Jane Root’s elevation to the post of BBC2 controller, a gap has opened up for Peter Grimsdale to join the pubcaster as head of factual programmes at the Independent Commissioning Group (ICG). Grimsdale was formerly commissioning editor for history, religion and features at Channel 4 where his credits included Witness and the Adam & Joe Show.

In his new role, he will act as the corporation’s main point of contact with indie producers. It is not clear yet whether C4 will replace his eclectic remit directly or split the role.

Meanwhile, Carlton Television’s new broom, Steve Hewlett, has completed his re-shuffle among the company’s senior factual program-makers. Having brought in Polly Bide from the bbc to be head of factual in the wake of the damaging Connection affair, Hewlett appears to have no further need for Paul Cleary, who has left his role as head of documentaries to join the independent sector. Carlton’s controller of factual programmes, Steve Clark, exited the company last fall.

Granada head of documentaries, Ruth Pitt, is another poised to quit the ITV family to return to the indie sector. In April, she will become head of programmes at Leeds-based Real Life Productions – a company she set up a decade ago. In addition to that broad-based role, she has also clinched a high-profile job as editor of BBC1′s Everyman series.

The hemorrhaging of senior factual talent to the indie sector accelerates a trend that has become increasingly noticeable during the last two years. First, a trio of BBC producers, including prolific executive producer Jeremy Mills, left to form Lion Television. Then Stephen Lambert, high-flying editor of BBC2′s Modern Times left to join RDF Television.

In a separate development, Will Smith has been appointed as deputy head of factual at LWT Productions – reporting to department head Jim Allen. Smith’s credits include ITV’s Drivers From Hell and one of LWT’s few commissions for the BBC: Supergrass, which aired in the Inside Story strand. He was previously LWTP’s head of current affairs. Andy Fry

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.