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ISSUE 117 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/14/2003

Unreeling the documentary craze

By Lisa Gulya
Contributing Writer

Friday, November 14, 2003

Documentary films are undoubtedly gaining popularity among viewers. Last spring, St. Olaf students waited in a line to sit in the aisles of Viking Theater to watch Michael Moore’s "Bowling for Columbine," a documentary examining America’s gun culture.

This new documentary enthusiasm contrasts with past reception of the genre. In a recent Daily Variety article, Roger Ebert called American moviegoers "essentially unadventurous. People risk their money and their time on something that is going to be a sure bet. Docs [documentaries] have no stars, are not sequels and don't have special effects; [they] are not a sure bet for a lot of people."

Documentaries instead depend on good reviews and word of mouth. Success at film festivals is particularly beneficial for "docs."

Now, in an era where reality shows have taken over television, documentaries are suddenly succeeding in theaters. Within the last 10 years, the number of documentaries made has tripled. Twenty-three docs had already been released domestically by June of this year. Docs are no longer painful educational experiences. Instead, they boast compelling stories, genuine suspense, and real people as characters.

In a recent Variety article in the Star Tribune, Sheila Nevins, executive vice-president of original programming at HBO, said that thanks to "Bowling," distributors are more willing to take a chance with documentaries. The film is now the second-highest box-office earner among all narrative feature documentaries, and has grossed over $21.4 million, second only to the 1974 MGM documentary "That’s Entertainment."

Recent docs have also benefited from smart timing, heightened media interest, and connections with pertinent interest groups, including "Spellbound," "Winged Migration" and "Capturing the Friedmans." The release of "Spellbound," a film that follows eight youngsters competing in the National Spelling Bee, was timed to coincide with the televised broadcast of the contest. It received publicity on "Today" and "Oprah." "Friedmans" was covered in People magazine, on "48 Hours," and even "The Howard Stern Show." Distributors for "Migration," a film which follows the migration of birds on all seven continents, worked with the National Audubon Society.

The digital revolution has made it easier and more financially feasible for documentary makers to work on these long-term projects. Docs’ smaller budgets, largely due to the absence of big-name actors, make them more attractive for distributors.

Viewers must keep a questioning attitude, however. Since docs can be personal and emotionally charged projects, they can easily become saturated with directors’ personalities and biases. Indulging in voyeurism via docs is fine, as long as viewers are aware of the opinion they’re receiving along with their entertainment.

– The Minneapolis/St. Paul Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Film Festival, which features an array of documentary pieces, is currently underway at the Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis. For more infomation, visit

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