Notes on the Atrocities Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...
Friday, February 27, 2004
The Rise of Docs
Digital video was supposed to revolutionize film. Cameras were cheap enough for indie filmmakers and images were digital--they could be dumped onto a computer for easy editing. It hasn't really worked out that way, though (at least not yet). I've experienced first hand part of the reason--filmmaking is hard. A few friends and I tried to make a film based on a script I had written. But the difficulties (too numerous to list) of the filmmaking process itself brought us down. When you don't have access to sets and props and can't pay your actors, things get rocky fast.
Where DV has caused a revolution is in documentaries. In the past few years, documentaries have not only been making it to metroplexes, they've been making decent money. And last year, Michael Moore redefined "marketability" when Bowling for Columbine made $21 million. This year Spellbound made $5.7 mil, Capturing the Friedmans made $3.1 million, and Fog of War is off to a strong start with $1.6 million.
DV may not have made fiction filmmaking much more accessible, but it has opened up documentaries. The quality standards for the form are much lower, so it becomes more a question of having a good idea about a story. And here filmmakers are really taking advantage, as the wealth of new documentaries shows.
It's an interesting inverse to the creative laxity of Hollywood. There the technical side of things couldn't be better--films look and sound great and there's literally no limit to what kind of image can now appear on screen. But on the creative side, the story side, things couldn't be worse. Hollywood seems to have lost all taste for risk, and so long as by-the-numbers scripts are available, they'll put their talents to making those tedious things look great. Fifty million dollars and 47 explosions later and it's just so boring.
Documentaries are starting to satisfy filmgoers' thirst for a good story. This year, in Spellbound, we had one of the most exciting stories filmed (though it was shot on regular film). I was literally on the edge of my seat as the kids tried to work through words I'd never even heard before. At the Portland Film Festival, I saw My Architect, which wove personal history, biography, and art apprecation together in a thoroughly original way. I can't imagine movies like Dogtown and Z Boys coming from moribund Hollywood--it's way too far off the by-the-numbers thinking that guides greenlighting.
The most creative stories are still getting made by indie filmmakers. These days, they just happen to be documentaries, not fiction.