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Don’t Call It A Comeback

Last year's Price Guide results suggested docs over 60-minutes led an existence like that of leprachauns or the Loch Ness monster: talked about, but never seen. This year, however, longer formats are showing concrete signs of life....
March 1, 2000

Last year’s Price Guide results suggested docs over 60-minutes led an existence like that of leprachauns or the Loch Ness monster: talked about, but never seen. This year, however, longer formats are showing concrete signs of life.

Germany is one region with an interest in 90-minute docs. But, the reason for the slot’s popularity seems to rest more on history and culture than on a preference for the format itself. ‘We’re used to making longer films,’ says Dieter Matzka, a producer at Munich’s Matzka Kiener Film Production. ‘And we’re used to listening to stories for a longer time.’ German fiction and feature films are also traditionally 90-minutes in length, so docs in this format can be scheduled in slots normally reserved for fiction.

This is also the case in Italy. Explains Francesco Cirafeci, a producer with Roman pubcaster RAI TRE’s history department, ‘Primetime in Italy, which starts at 8:00 or 8:30 p.m., runs 90 minutes to two hours and we usually broadcast films.’ RAI TRE currently programs a 90-minute history slot named Grande Historia Monday at 9:00 p.m., and plans to add another long format doc slot on social issues starting in the spring.

The relationship between feature films and 90-minute docs likewise applies in the Asian market. ‘This used to be the movie slot,’ explains Robert Chow, director of Intercontinental Communications, a Hong Kong-based distributor. ‘With the economic downfall in the Far East, the majority of stations switched to buying docs because they are similar, but less expensive.’ Movies are scheduled after 9 p.m. to avoid censorship, which means docs that fit this slot will too.

Apart from appropriating fiction’s time slots, 90-minute docs have a legitimate role of their own, offering viewers a much needed change of pace. ‘[30 and 60-minute] formats are faster-paced, more like reportage or infotainment,’ says Julia Kasprzak, an acquisitions executive for docs at Canal+ International Acquisitions in Paris. ‘Longer formats break away from that. They’re more classical.’ They also provide a venue for subjects too complex to address in 60 minutes. But, producers, distributors and broadcasters alike warn that 90-minute docs must present a different approach. ‘A 90-minute doc is more difficult to make than a 30 or 60-minute one,’ says Frencesco Virga, a distributor with Camera G&P International Distribution in Milan, Italy. ‘It needs a more interesting subject, better writing and better footage. You have to be a good producer.’ Which explains why 90-minute docs work well as one-offs, but not as series.

Selling a 90-minute film is still a difficult task. The 60-minute single dominates the field, with over half of survey respondents working in this format. Those dealing with 30-minute one-offs totaled just under 10%. ‘I’ve turned away sales because the producer has refused to cut [the film],’ recalls Nancy Wolzog of Tapestry International in New York. ‘We’re not here to handcuff creativity, but unless a film has stature, it’s hard to sell.’ Some broadcasters in Asia are even reducing their 90-minute offerings, filling the space instead with a 60-minute variety show and a 30-minute doc.

Wolzog suggests the current trend in 90-minute productions may reflect the aspirations of producers to obtain a theatrical release for their projects – something made easier with a longer format. The same also applies to the growing festival circuit.

Did The Blair Witch Project whet appetites in ways previously unimagined? ‘If you have a well done [90-minute] film, it’s possible to sell,’ echoes Matzka. ‘But it must be well done… more like a fiction film.’ It seems so.

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