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Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, August 2004

By Richard Propper

Dear IDA Members,

They're out there: The 187-minute documentary, the 137-minute "cut-down," the 103-minute "rough cut." I meet filmmakers all the time who are looking to make the next greatest feature documentary. They are passionate, have purpose and are telling the world about subjects that need to be heard. But after shooting hundreds of hours, some of these filmmakers find it hard to make the editorial decisions that need to be made. The result is often a documentary that has the potential to be entertaining and profound but is just too long and convoluted.

Some filmmakers may make their friends and family sit through one, two or three screenings. Everyone will tell them how wonderful their documentary is—but no one is willing to tell them the truth: It's just too long. Down the road, after these filmmakers have not qualified for Sundance or Toronto, they will think to change their film, trim it down to 107 minutes. They still don't get it! When they finally ask what is wrong with their work, they will finally get the advice they needed to hear all along: Cut it down.

Understand that we, the audience, are a trained people. Over our lives, our attention spans have been stretched and molded to sit for an hour of broadcast fun. That applies to dramas, comedies, sitcoms and, yes, even documentaries. Accustomed as we are to the mandated broadcast hour, I ask this: Can the entire story of a given subject actually be told in an hour? Probably not. I didn't decide it and you didn't decide it, but the length of time for a normal broadcast documentary is about 48 minutes. If a broadcaster is willing to pay you the right amount of money, 48 minutes it is. Over time, I've seen hundreds of documentaries that were better as one-hour versions. They sprang to life, they became both entertaining and compelling.

Our savior in the "mandated broadcast hour world" is the feature-length documentary. Unbound, uncensored, bigger, better and louder, this is the place where a director can boldly tell his/her story. But with this 90 minutes or so, filmmakers still have a responsibility to their "captive" audience. They have a responsibility to be accurate.  They have a responsibility to be good storytellers. They have a responsibility to make the audience think and possibly change the world. The studios are maligned because they can promote a very average film and still make millions of dollars; this is deemed an acceptable practice. We in the documentary world do not have that luxury. Our films must deliver what the audience is coming for—polished, thought-provoking content.


Until next time,

Richard Propper
IDA Board President