02 Documentary

Documentary film has enjoyed an explosion in popularity over the last decade.  Fuelled by a renewed interest in feature documentaries shown on television in strands such as Storyville, Cutting Edge and Imagine…, the quality and breadth of material available to the public has never been higher and the success of documentaries released in the cinema never been so great.

Festivals such as Sheffield Doc/Fest and International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in the Netherlands are major events attracting TV and theatrical buyers from all over the world as well as top filmmaking talent. In the last decade, principally since Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine became a global box office hit to the tune of $50m, there has been an exponential growth in the number of documentaries made for the cinema as much as TV.

In recent years specialist distributors such as Dogwoof have sprung up to champion the form.  However, as digital filmmaking has exponentially exploded access to filmmaking, and particularly documentary making, it is also making it harder for documentaries to have the kind of length runs on our cinema screens enjoyed by Moore, Broomfield, Morris et al in the first decade of the 21st century.  For one thing, more documentary than ever before is broadcast on free to air television. The films, like any films, need to have a reason to be in a cinema – their formal qualities or the size of the their interest group needs to reflect the use of the cinema screen. Talking heads look even worse in a cinema than on TV.

More recently documentaries have fared best when programmed as event cinema with local interest groups encouraged to bring their members. For example, human rights and environmental issue based documentaries such as End of the Line, The Spirit of ’45, and Blackfish are all films which achieved their box office success through Dogwoof’s clever use of associated activist and interest groups to leverage maximum publicity from minimum screenings at each local cinema screening their films.

The trick with niche interest films is to draw as many people as possible in to a single screening rather than have the film play for a long time to very small individual houses – and the word-of-mouth grass roots local marketing to and through specialist interest groups is the best way to do this for a cinema.

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