This year’s Sundance Festival confirmed that organizers weren’t bluffing when they claimed to be raising the profile of documentaries at the annual Park City, Utah, event (January 18 to 28). From HBO exec Sheila Nevins – the self-proclaimed ‘siren queen of entertaining docs’ – who was enticed to attend for the first time, to Diesel clothing, whose swish sponsorship was secured for House of Docs, Sundance showed that factual’s allure may soon prove a challenge to fiction.
‘I feel inspired by the youth factor,’ said Nevins, in reference to the multitude of budding doc talents buzzing around. She added that hereafter Sundance will be a must-attend event for her (other HBO reps have attended in the past). Nevins’ presence reaffirmed HBO’s commitment to docs, offering hope to filmmakers pining after a tv broadcast deal. HBO/Cinemax Reel Life invested in several of the docs in competition, including Kate Davis’ Southern Comfort (the documentary Grand Jury Prize winner), Albert Maysles, Susan Froemke and Deborah Dickson’s Lalee’s Kin (Maysles won the doc Cinematography Award), and Edet Belzberg’s Children Underground (winner of the Special Jury Prize).
House of Docs, the designated venue for factual filmmakers at Sundance, moved to a new-and-improved location (closer to Main Street) this year, and stayed open for the length of the festival. Throughout the week, newbie and veteran doc-makers alike seemed drawn to this anti-Hollywood refuge, attending panel discussions, meetings or just hanging out. For up-and-comers, House of Docs not only afforded a chance to pick the brains of mentors like D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles, but also potential buyers like PBS president Pat Mitchell and theatrical distrib Udy Epstein of L.A.-based Seventh Art Releasing.
Panel discussions and roundtables ranged from financing to the international marketplace, often attracting standing-room-only crowds. Panelists were generally candid, except when probed for numbers. During the Broadcast Arena roundtable, the Sundance Channel’s Liz Manne shot down a question about acquisition fees with a curt, ‘No one here is going to respond to that.’ However, when the same query came up during the International Marketplace roundtable, both broadcasters on the panel managed to come up with an answer: Nick Fraser of the BBC’s Storyville strand said his pubcaster goes as low as US$7,500 to fill digital slots, but paid over $150,000 for Hoop Dreams; and Catherine Olsen, commissioning editor for CBC Newsworld in Canada said her channel generally offers between $8,000 and $15,000.
Sundance appeared to register on the radar of several international commissioning editors in search of doc content. Mette Hoffmann Meyer of TV2 Denmark attended for the first time, and though she doesn’t expect the festival to become an annual pilgrimage, she found it helpful for networking with U.S. filmmakers and picking up U.S. feature docs. Meyer said Go Tigers! (Kenneth A. Carlson), Lalee’s Kin and Southern Comfort caught her attention in particular.
Documentary filmmakers made a splash even outside of House of Docs. Errol Morris packed a 370-seat room for ‘Fast, Cheap, Out of Control and On Stage: From Vernon Florida to Auschwitz: A Brief History of Errol Morris,’ a $15-a-head paid event. The director of such highly regarded docs as The Thin Blue Line and Mr. Death kept the crowd entertained with such quips as, ‘The difference between documentary and drama is usually two zeros,’ and ‘I kind of miss being in prisons… I think I oppose the idea of capital punishment partly because I’d lose some of my closest friends.’ Morris also drew a full house for his ‘Megatron Presentation’ at the House of Docs the following day.