New Approaches Embolden Doc Genre

Karen Everett May 17, 2011

My last column described the first important feature of what I dubbed the New Documentary Movement. Evidence of this trend abounded at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. More and more, filmmakers are creating solution-oriented documentaries that inspire rather than paralyze or depress their audiences. A spirit of hope is the first and perhaps defining feature of this emerging movement. This column will describe the remaining three features of a trend that is changing our industry in positive ways.

But first, you should know that I am not the first person to come up with the term “New Documentary Movement.” I was recently delighted to learn that Wendy Levy, Creative Director at the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), used the term for two panels she helped develop in 2009. These panels were featured at the Producers Institute for New Media Technologies and the Sundance New Frontiers series. It’s exciting to note that BAVC’s Producers Institute encourages documentary directors to “include audiences early in the production process,” according to Levy. You can learn more at

In fact, the New Documentary Movement that I’ve been observing is intensely audience-focused rather than auteur-focused. An auteur is a European term for a film director whose has a highly personal creative vision and individual style. This approach can make their films seem esoteric or self-absorbed or boring. An audience-focused director bends over backwards to make sure that the viewer not only understands the material but is riveted, entertained or somehow emotionally moved.

As Michael Moore, who was one of the Sundance panellists, stressed, you’ve got to reach your audience. And two of the most effective strategies to reach audiences are to use humor and to tell a good story.

For example, at Sundance I saw a wonderful British documentary called The Flaw about the 2007 financial meltdown. Before the film began, the director said, “I want to assure you that the film has cartoons and jokes.” He admitted that the film was going to be a searing indictment of capitalism. And it was. And it was entertaining. (During the Q&A, I asked him why he didn’t include any of the recommendations or solutions to our financial mess that he was discussing now? And he said, “To be honest, when I finished the film six months ago, I didn’t know what the solutions were.” So I let him off the hook for not making a more positive, solution-oriented documentary because his film was so entertaining!)

Filmmakers who come to me seeking help with their story understand the importance of a structure that keeps the viewer engaged. They are intensively audience-focused. Recently I helped a Hollywood production company shape their biography of a celebrity. One of the problems with the rough cut was that the protagonist had no goal—and so of course there was no inciting incident. This structural flaw would have been fatal to the film, and it’s why the first half hour was pretty boring. But it was very easy to fix. I suggested a protagonist’s desire and a couple potential inciting incidents that I saw in the material, and it’s made a huge difference, transforming a boring film into an emotionally engaging, riveting film.

The third defining feature of the New Documentary Movement is an entrepreneurial spirit. These directors are not sitting around waiting for that Ford Foundation grant to come in before they hire a story consultant. They are taking classes from people like Carole Dean and soliciting angel investors; they are making alliances with and getting sponsorship from socially minded businesses; they’re learning from DocuMentors about Kickstarter and Indie Gogo; and they are raising thousands of dollars quickly through crowd-funding, that is, money from their peers and friends.

When their films are finished, which they almost always are, these directors think like entrepreneurs about how to market and reach their niche audiences. They aren’t necessarily waiting for a traditional distributor to sell their film. They’re taking classes like Mark Rosenthal’s online seminars or Stacy Park’s Film Specific tele-seminars and learning now to distribute their films themselves. You can read more about this entrepreneurial spirit in a recent edition of the Independent magazine. Many of the documentaries featured at Sundance were part of a larger entrepreneurial enterprise, whether it was an interactive website, an outreach campaign or a series.

The fourth and final feature of the New Doc Movement is truly innovative filmmaking. These directors are not afraid to think outside the box. Like Tiffany Shlain, with her creative use of found footage in “Connected” (, these directors are always looking for new methods of visual storytelling. They aren’t afraid to use cutting-edge graphics. Like the director of Man on Wire, they take re-enactments to a new level of sophistication. They play with contriving situations for their characters (without losing integrity). They risk staging or even coaching interviewees (again, without losing integrity). And they blend the best of narrative and documentaries into a new hybrid form. Like the most successful entrepreneurs and the most daring artists, these filmmakers see innovation and creativity as the lifeblood of this new movement.

If you’d like to learn more about the New Documentary Movement, you can download my free teleseminar

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