Docudrama in the new millennium

Docudramas have existed for almost as long as film, from Nanook of the North -
March 1, 2008

Docudramas have existed for almost as long as film, from Nanook of the North – the staged 1922 look at Eskimos – to Granada Television’s dramatized scenes in the ‘World in Action’ doc strand in the ’60s, to the present day. Docudrama, a catch-all term for works that combine dramatic elements with documentary techniques to propel and enrich a story, still plays an integral role in the television landscape, and has already gone through several changes in this millennium.

The History Channel in the US has certainly changed the execution of its subjectmatter within that time, says Michael Katz, VP of programming and production at AETN International. Starting around 2000, and for several years afterwards, says Katz, the channel did a number of specials that utilized a lot of CGI and cinematic recreation. One special from 2004 called Witch Hunt was a heavily dramatized program about the Salem witch trials, but the entire dialog was taken from court transcripts to ensure it was historically accurate.

Cinematic recreation specials were tent poles for History Channel’s schedule, says Katz. ‘Our viewers in North America were telling us at that point that we were in competition with broadcast networks, movie channels and dramas, so in order to capture their attention, the production values of any story that we had to tell had to match up with what they had access to elsewhere,’ says Katz. ‘We had to present programming with the same kind of high production values, so we stepped down our reliance on art and black-and-white archives and started to use more cinematic and CGI reconstructions.’

The same quest for audience numbers on par with drama ratings happened in the UK, where to have a discussion about the docudrama genre without hearing a reference to 2003′s Touching the Void is like going to MIP without walking la Croisette – impossible. John Smithson, executive chairman and creative director of London-based Darlow Smithson Productions, the prodco behind the BAFTA Award-winning film, explains why the company used docudrama to tell this story of survival: ‘There are some stories that, to really bring them alive, you need to re-enact. The survivors talking about feeling cold and hanging onto a rope isn’t quite as powerful as actually re-enacting it and seeing the true jeopardy of the situation.’ As Richard Dale, director of creative content at London’s Dangerous Films, suggests when discussing the genre, docudramas can often turn out to be more than the sum of their parts.

That’s if they’re done right. Oliver Morse, a company director at Windfall Films, a London-based prodco, takes off his rose-colored glasses when remembering the early growing pains the genre experienced. ‘A lot of doc-makers were given vast sums of money to go off and pretend they were drama producers, and they made these tremendously expensive shows which I think weren’t altogether successful,’ he says. He feels some of that era’s scripted dialog in particular felt ‘very wooden and creaky,’ and that not all of the films suited the drama style. ‘They were sort of overblown documentary which failed as drama.’

Thankfully the consensus is that that area of specialist factual TV has come and gone. In the case of today’s History Channel programs, Katz says, ‘I do think the over-the-top recreation has taken a backseat to more direct, character-based contemporary programs, so you’ll probably see The History Channel doing more things like Ice Road Truckers and fewer things like the Salem witch trials.’ Docudrama or cinematic recreation may not be relevant to the channel’s total viewership at this point, he furthers.

But that hasn’t curbed the interest in the genre from broadcasters around the world. ‘Docudramas will never go out of fashion,’ says Smithson. ‘They’ll bob up and down by 20% more one year and 20% down the following year, but not more than that. There’s always going to be a market for them.’

Speaking from her former experience as a broadcast executive, Sam Linton, SVP of factual programming at the Toronto office of Cineflix, adds that commissioners are looking for compelling stories that hit their brand and viewers. Rather than outright turn against docudramas as a form, she says broadcasters will ask ‘Is this the best way to tell the story?’ Cineflix itself had to contemplate that question for an upcoming two-hour show it’s producing on the Manson murders. Linton says the logic in going the docudrama route to tell the tale is that Cineflix will provide a POV from inside the cult with the family and go beyond the court transcripts and news footage that the public already knows.

Smithson believes the appetite for docudramas on the whole is strong, but warns: ‘If you do them, do them well – and doing them well requires a budget. In docudrama, there’s an extraordinarily direct relationship between budget and the quality you can put on screen.’
Rebuilding history
There are a wide range of funding amounts broadcasters give to such productions. Producers say that while slots for the docudrama genre have increased over the past few years, budgets haven’t. Sean Grundy, drama executive producer at London-based Pioneer Productions, estimates that a ‘traditional’ doc would probably get roughly £220,000 (US$442,000) an hour, while a docudrama may get roughly £250,000 ($502,000) an hour. ‘There will always be producers that can squeeze more out of the networks,’ adds Grundy, ‘but it seems that for a docudrama the more drama there is, the more it needs to be a coproduction.’

Dale at Dangerous is well acquainted with using multiple partners as a means to finance the company’s high-end docudramas. He says the company’s 2007 one-off, Diana: The Last Days of a Princess, a copro with Channel Five, TLC, TF1, ProSieben and Channel One Russia, cost between $4 million and $5 million to make. ‘That budget is comparable to a drama because it has all the same expenses and attributes – key casting, great locations and a big script – plus all the difficult bits of a documentary: research, access and interviews.’ Dale finds the docudramas Dangerous produce are amongst the most expensive factual shows that the broadcasters with which it works will be commissioning. ‘We usually have four or five coproducers, so people will put in 20% or 25% of the production budget, so it will be half-a-million pounds ($1 million) or more for them for that two-hour show.’

In an exception to the docudrama copro norm, Windfall’s fact-based dramas have been fully funded by their British backers. ‘They were far cheaper than the cheapest drama, but more expensive than the most expensive documentary,’ says Morse. The budget for Born with Two Mothers was £300,000 ($602,000), and that was three years ago. For comparison’s sake, Morse says a Channel 4 doc at that time would normally cost roughly £140,000 ($281,000), while if Mothers was done as a 90-minute drama, the cheapest possible would be between £600,000 ($1.2 million) and £750,000 ($1.5 million).

And… Action!
No matter how high the budget, flaws can creep into a docudrama – flaws that don’t help the sometimes negative reputation the genre has suffered. ‘Docudrama has got a stigma of being a bit corny, particularly when the drama elements happen,’ says Grundy. ‘It’s seen as being a bit fake or not well scripted.’

He believes those problems emerge when not enough focus is placed on the writing. While doc-makers tend to obsess about the post-production part of the process, drama directors focus on the writing and script, says Grundy. He believes doc-makers venturing into docudramas would benefit by ‘having a more rigorous approach to the script and perhaps hiring proper scriptwriters or script editors’ at the writing stage.

Being upfront with audiences in terms of what they can expect in a program is another thing to bear in mind when making a docudrama, says Katz. The History Channel does this by disclaiming at the top of a program that there will be recreation throughout, and that all of the dialog was taken from actual court transcripts, quotes or writings. ‘The last thing you want to do is confuse or hoodwink your audience,’ says Katz. ‘If they don’t quite get what they’re watching, they’ll leave you in a nanosecond because there are hundreds of other choices to go spend their time with.’

Advisors and historians are normally employed by prodcos to oversee the information gathering and script writing in this genre, which in itself can lead to some internal debates. While working on The Hindenburg Disaster, a recently completed two-hour special for Channel 4, Smithsonian Networks and ZDF, Grundy admits he lost some battles with the experts because certain elements he wanted to use weren’t provable. For example, Grundy wanted the American air base commander that witnessed the crash and was involved with the rescue to be portrayed as ‘much more troubled, and being driven slightly more insane by the investigation.’ That would have been dramatically interesting, he says, but there was no written evidence to support it, so it was a no-go with their expert. ‘We wanted to find something written down that he smashed a coffee table or pulled off his vest and said ‘I can’t stand it anymore,” laughs Grundy, ‘but it wasn’t there.’

Experts used to check facts come in the form of more than just historians – people who lived through the events presented in a docudrama are also a valuable resource. Dangerous’ D-Day 6.6.1944, a 2004 copro that combined CGI and drama, for example, used up to a dozen people with different areas of expertise, says Dale. ‘They have a saying about war particularly that ‘Everyone’s war is 100 yards wide,’ which means that’s all you see and all you know,’ he says. ‘You can have two different people at the same place at the same time and they’ll both give you a different account, and to an extent they’re both true. That’s what I think docudramas should be seeking: it’s about trying to make it feel to you and me who weren’t there what it was like if you were.’

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.