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.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.