Realscreen January/February 2019

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020 JANUARY / FEBRUARY '19 FIRST LOOK here is something in the air, and what I'd hoped would happen looks increasingly likely. A big, healthy market is emerging with brilliant creative talent, great stories, lots of distribution options, real finance choices and audiences who seem to have a voracious appetite for skilfully crafted films, on the big screen as well as via streaming. This is always the time when I start thinking about the state of the theatrical documentary market. The catalyst is the buzz from the annual documentary awards cycle of the Academy through to the BAFTAs. Plus there's the exciting new crop of docs that have made it through fearsome competition to get into Sundance. One hundred and sixty-six docs have been submitted to the Academy, and every one of them is the product of a journey of creative passion and relentless hard work. So it's tough that the list is brutally culled to 15, then five, then down to one. When I've written about feature docs in the past, I've always heralded a brave and exciting new world for creatives drawn to this genre, but this hasn't quite happened to this point. To be sure there have been, in pure box office terms, major break-out docs, although many have been starry, music-based features or lurid, highly political docs. But now I think it's real. The trends of the past year only reinforce this. Who would have thought that stories about an iconic Supreme Court judge, a beloved kids TV host and three identical triplets would do significantly well at the box office and be hot tips for the awards. According to Box Office Mojo, RBG, Won't You Be My Neighbor and Three Identical Strangers have all made it into the list of the top 30 all-time best performing feature docs. All three are stories that could have existed perfectly well as TV docs, so how encouraging it is that they've broken into the theatrical orbit. Their success is bound to encourage financiers to take the plunge on a new wave of docs, which do more than follow the formulaic rules. POINTED ARROW A PRODUCER'S PERSPECTIVE By John Smithson T Once there were fears that SVOD would damage the theatrical market — that seekers of quality docs would spurn the cinema and binge at home. I feel the opposite has occurred and the advent of SVOD has reenergized things. Yes, the streamers are creatively enabling and provide the finance and platform to deliver a substantial slate of quality work. But significantly, they have encouraged other players to grab a slice of the action. CNN, for example, was behind two of the three films I mentioned. In cable and in new SVOD ventures there is a real desire to invest in the right projects. The resurgence of feature docs has had another significant impact. Their creative DNA is spilling into longer form content. Storytelling, the big screen feel, and sheer craft has distinguished some of the most talked-about series of recent times. If you think about the creative excellence of OJ.: Made in America or Wild Wild Country, they are both feature docs on steroids. The feature doc influence is even percolating into mainstream TV. Savvy producers are realizing that telling your story with a theatrical sensibility gives a prestige and classiness that sits comfortably with the binge-viewing crowd. In our turbulent, non-scripted world this triumph of the theatrical doc is a rare good news story. Indeed, such is my confidence in the resilience of this genre, that I intend to spend much more of my time focusing on this exciting opportunity. John Smithson is creative director of Arrow Pictures, a new feature and high-end factual label created out of Arrow, the leading indie which he co-founded in 2011. Who would have thought that stories about an iconic Supreme Court judge, a beloved kids TV host and three identical triplets would do significantly well at the box office?"

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