Thursday, June 19, 2008

Um, "Iron Man" isn't a documentary, is it?

I like to think of myself as a fairly adventurous moviegoer, willing, eager even, to seek out films a bit off the beaten path. I frequent the art-house (in DC, the great AFI Silver Theater and Landmark E St. Cinema) as much as the multiplex, and often find that the list of movies I want to see – stored nerdily in my wallet – consists largely of documentaries.

The LA Times, though, cuts me down to size as the typical ticket holder I am, with today’s story on ‘08 docs tanking at the box office. The article lays out nicely the reasons for the documentary’s decline in ticket sales lately, including topic fatigue or disinterest (features about Iraq have been notoriously flopping over at the multiplex); the double-edged sword of previous indie/doc breakout success, resulting in a kind of “studiofication” of the independent film world; and increasing reliance on Netflix or YouTube, rather than the big screen.

While I’m as interested in films about social justice issues as the next local film festival attendee, there’s a reason the documentaries that do break out are able to do so – namely, broad audience appeal. And yeah, I (along with tons of others) was drawn to those featuring Al Gore, Michael Moore, or penguins. As a genre that relies heavily on word of mouth, buzz is the thing most likely to get me into a doc screening (as with the critically acclaimed Young @ Heart, pictured above). But since summer blockbusters look great on the big screen and docs tend to suffer less in TV format, I’m more likely to add the latter to my Netflix queue than see them right away.

If the problem for the truly independent documentary filmmaker, then, is how to get your film noticed, YouTube’s new “screening room” feature may just be the answer. Upload your movie for free, and if enough people watch, you could find yourself collecting ad revenue, selling thousands of DVD copies via a "Buy Now" link, or even getting picked up for a distribution deal. Then, there's IFC’s video-on-demand Festival Direct, and Tribeca Film Institute’s Reframe, offering docs to download or buy on video. Finding an audience for your film online might be about as independent as it gets...

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