WFF 2013: Documentary filmmakers discuss survival amid reality TV

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The popularity and prevalence of reality television has not only changed the viewing landscape but has affected documentary programs as well. It is also forcing some documentarians to change the way that they pursue projects.

A panel discussion held on December 6 at the Whistler Film Festival's film and TV industry forum, the Summit, addressed how documentary filmmakers can survive in the competitive environment for financing and distribution.

One of the panelists, Barry Avrich, directed Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story, a profile of Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione.  

"I think out of some 28 documentaries, it was the easier thing I've ever pitched," he said of his film which screened at the festival. "I could barely get the words 'Penthouse, Guccione' out and everyone was in, given the subject matter."

Part of his strategy is his choice of topic. He has focused on biographies of movers and shakers in the media, including Garth Drabinsky, Lew Wasserman, and Harvey Weinstein.

"I tend to pick subject matters that I think are going to be commercial and a little bit scandalous," he said, "and I think find the right sponsors to be attached to it as well because it's impossible to make these larger documentaries with the current system and…the scarcity of…the desire to buy one-offs is becoming a huge issue for all of us because everyone's looking to buy series and reality shows so I think we're all going to gravitate towards subject matter that is more commercial."

Avrich pointed out though that it's not just the project idea that's important but the reputation of the filmmaker as well.

"Given with what's going on and the way that films are being bought or not being bought, I think that as a filmmaker, you have to figure out how to brand yourself and be a brand outside of when your film is made and released," he said. "It's very easy to go to a film festival if you've been accepted and get a lot of press…but you sort of have to figure out how to be foreground versus background. But I think you really have to make sure that people know who you are as a filmmaker in between your films so that when you go in and make a pitch and have your ideas, they know who you are and get a sense of the story long before you pitch."

Roger Evan Larry, director of Citizen Marc about pro-pot activist Marc Emery, added that how a filmmaker brands her- or himself can help improve the process of pitching an idea.

"There's two ways to approach that. You could brand yourself as someone who's always very clever at seeing where the opportunities are, and then you can also brand yourself as actually having a vision that allows you to be foreground as opposed to background….Part of branding is figuring out who you are as an artist, as a storyteller. It's an act of going inside yourself and finding out what are the stories you want to tell….and find the work that is most interesting to you because you will be able to express that to the people who have the money in a way that is much more compelling than something you are not inspired by."

He said that the act of filming Marc Emery became "the perfect development process" (which was financed by his other for-hire work that he described as factory work in terms of demand and deadlines). "If you can afford to do that, it's both a great pleasure and it can reap rich rewards," he said.

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