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Notes from the Reel World: The President's Column, Spring 2011

By Rachel Kamerman

Dear Documentary Community,

It's been said in many corners, and it's true from all of them: 2010 was a banner year for documentaries, creatively speaking. Whether you liked or loathed many of this past year's titles, three things are inarguable: (1) they were anything but boring, (2) the overall tide level of the craft has risen, and (3) Goddamn, there sure were a lot of them!

Serious or amusing, challenging or traditional, brazenly real or uncertainly unreal; they were all that and more. "A golden age," more than one news outlet called it. And yet, in view of mainstream media (and perhaps, mainstream corporate boardrooms), documentaries are still considered "ignored" by general audiences. A New York Times piece in January 2011 compared the total gross of all documentaries in 2010 to one medium-budget cookie-cutter studio film across the span of the entire year.

But waaaaait a minute! What one documentary appears on the same number of movie screens or has anything close to the amount of ad dollars of even the lamest studio fare? You can't compare Alex Gibney to Yogi Bear, I'm sorry to say. They're not the same average bears.

It's time we rethought what "success" means for documentaries. Our $4 million is like their $40 million, because their $40 million probably cost $60 million to procure. If only documentaries had the deep wellspring of marketing, promotion and business affairs muscle to draw upon that studio fare has for...well, anything...then maybe we'd have a level playing field. We don't.

And let us not dismiss that animal called television, as documentaries were seen, cherished and beloved by millions on pay and free television in 2010; the same millions who could not have been as affected nor as deeply moved by catching Sandra Bullock's All About Steve on an endless loop, "numbers" notwithstanding. Digital portals are only just beginning to gather a head of steam, of course, but many cater to the documentary lover unable to see the work any other way but very excited to take the reins in this user-driven world.  I'd like to see some data on Netflix, Hulu, etc.; my suspicion is that documentaries make up a much bigger percentage of downloads and streams than one might suspect.

We can't accept mainstream definitions of success unless the mainstream would like to share their resources. Or admit their failures. Or open their books and show their expenses.  

We're doing great. We just need to sell ourselves a little better. Fight the tide, go for the hearts and minds, define the debate. And rock on.



Eddie Schmidt
IDA Board President