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Doc Edge 2010 looks for cinematic work

Despite featuring John Barnett and Marilyn Milgrom, sparring partners from a session earlier in the day, the panel found themselves largely in agreement on the nature of what constituted the ‘cinematic’ documentary – which made for clarity if not combustion.

Julia Overton, facilitating, opened with a trailer for Screen Australia-supported 2010 documentary releases, demonstrating a range of approaches to filmmaking, one of which (Mother of Rock) contained the memorable description of its subject, “She looked like a Botticelli angel, who’d just finished giving King Kong a blow job.”

Although that particular film is destined for TV, it established a point much-returned to during the discussion: the importance of using compelling characters to tell an engaging story.

Hans Robert Eisenhauer, a TV commissioner, has commissioned a number of theatrically successful documentaries during his time at ZDF/Arte, including Buena Vista Social Club.

Of course, all directors always think their idea deserves a big screen outing – even if, according to Marilyn, their reasoning was sometimes ‘TVNZ/TV3 turned me down, so I thought I’d come to you’.

Hans Robert gave a run-down of the crucial elements that would define a film (documentary or otherwise) as cinematic, with which all the other panelists concurred.

The story: is it a strong story with strong characters that an audience can identify with? Is the story emotionally engaging?

Dramaturgy: the difference between good TV and a good film is that TV starts with an earthquake to engage the audience and builds to a tsunami to keep people engaged. Film can tell the story in a manner appropriate to the story rather than the audience expectations, as it may assume a commitment on the part of someone who’s made the effort to go see the film.

Cinematography: the ability to utilise the (bigger) screen to create effective and affecting imagery.

Editing: as editing for TV moves ever closer to the fast-cutting approach of commercials (and has to cater for breaks), film can stand out by creating sequences that serve the story not the timetable.

Sound: music, soundtrack, even silence, engage an audience emotionally. Film is an emotional medium which – when viewed in a theatre – can deliver a much stronger emotional experience for an audience that arrives with higher expectations than a TV audience.

Whatever the ‘natural’ home for a documentary, the problems it faces getting up are the same as for a narrative feature: the story must be compelling, and must engage an audience.

“Try selling ‘a bunch of old women talk about the war’”, Gaylene Preston said.

Echoing Hans Robert’s point about editing, Gaylene spoke about her experience with War Stories (Our Mothers Never Told Us) when it came to screen on TV. The seven women’s stories, told sequentially, each in its own section of the film, were cut to ribbons with ad breaks. Worse, the breaks didn’t even take advantage of the natural breaks (fades to black) between the individual stories in the film.

But the TV money, including triggering NZ On Air funding, can be essential to getting a project up and the differing needs and desires of film and TV audiences need to be catered for somehow, increasingly commonly by making a theatrical or “festival” cut and a 60 minute TV version.

John Barnett, returning to a theme he’s visited previously, spoke of outcomes – a “cinematic” film defined as being something that people would pay $15 to see. Despite all the talk of compelling stories with characters an audience can relate to, John had discovered that of the top ten earning documentaries, seven were Imax releases – predominantly nature-focused. With occasional exceptions such as Michael Moore’s body of work and films like An Inconvenient Truth, many documentaries regularly held up as vastly influential were poor box office performers – Shine a Light, Touching the Void, Man on Wire, The September Issue among them.

The ‘if we build it, they will come’ school of filmmaking raised its head during the Q&A, revisiting an earlier part of the discussion about distribution. Unlike features – predominantly skewed to a younger generation – documentaries have a ‘more mature’ audience which values content over immediacy of availability. The wide release with a short run is increasingly important for features, but many documentaries can afford to release more slowly to build word-of-mouth.

March of the Penguins opened on four screens, Bowling for Columbine and An Inconvenient Truth both on eight. Admittedly those screens were very carefully selected to ensure a positive reception, but that’s an important part of knowing the business.

However, John Barnett warned against extrapolating information into wishful thinking. Untouchable Girls, he said, did not mean there was a burgeoning market for theatrical documentaries in NZ. It simply meant it was a bloody good film that connected with its audience.

In response to a question on the funding of documentaries, an area in which the Film Commission has recently announced some new initiatives (in part due to lobbying by the DOCNZ Trust), Marilyn Milgrom acknowledged that public funding structures, such as the NZFC’s, did favour people who could write good proposals.

However, she argued that the Film Commission would expect someone who wants access to tax dollars to fund their film (any film) to able to communicate their ideas. Succinctly. Preferably in one page in the first instance.

Peace reigned, all agreed on the elements that make something ‘cinematic’, and people headed off for lunch convinced their project fell within the definition. On Wednesday, those pitching in the Doc Pitch will find out if the funders and commissioners on the panel agree.

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