Documentaries flourish at Sundance, then struggle

By Mary Milliken
Sunday, January 21, 2007; 4:24 PM

PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - Documentary filmmakers at the Sundance Film Festival thrive on eager audiences and the support of sages like festival founder Robert Redford.

But down in the real world after the high-altitude soiree ends, directors of even the best documentaries find it hard to keep breathing as commercial distribution opportunities are few and far between.

Sundance is the top U.S. gathering spot for movies made outside Hollywood, and for more than 20 years, it has championed the nonfiction genre. Redford's main message to documentary makers this year was: don't despair, "docs" will remain at the heart of Sundance, regardless of their market success.

To make that point, organizers chose for their opening-night film last week the documentary "Chicago 10," about the trial of anti-war activists after the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

"By opening the festival with this film, we really are making a statement about the importance of documentaries," Redford said at a news conference.

"Chicago 10" director Brett Morgen, who mixed original animation with archival television footage, glowed in the aura of Redford.

"He is an icon for me as a documentary filmmaker for what he has done for my generation," Morgen said.

Sundance 2007, which ends January 28, has 16 U.S.-made documentaries and 16 foreign docs competing for awards in two separate categories.

Among the U.S. entries are two about the war in Iraq, "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" and "No End in Sight," and one about homosexuality in religion, "For the Bible Tells Me So." One quirky entry is "Crazy Love" about a tragic romance played out in New York tabloids 50 years ago.

Foreign entries include Britain's "Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten," about the front man of 1970s punk band The Clash, and Mexico's "Bajo Juarez, the city devouring its daughters," about crimes against women on the U.S. border.


For all the success of the 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" about global warming -- the third-largest grossing documentary of its kind with $41 million at global box offices -- there are plenty of theatrical flops weighing on people's minds.

Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary and Family, laments all the lauded films that had theatrical releases and brought in little, like the Dixie Chicks' "Shut Up & Sing," "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and "The War Tapes."

"The bottom line is that not that many people go to see documentaries at the box office, and I don't think that is going to change," Nevins told Reuters.

Last year Nevins produced the Spike Lee film on New Orleans and Katrina, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," and "Baghdad ER."

This year at Sundance, Nevins has brought three documentaries including "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" directed by Rory Kennedy, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy. It will go to theaters and be shown on the HBO pay-cable channel next month.

Nevins said distribution through digital download might be one way to get documentaries that fail at the box office a broader audience.

"People go to movies to escape, but they download to find out," she said.


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