Consider this: At last year’s Full Frame, BIGGER STRONGER FASTER*, a fast-paced, rousing dissent from the conventional wisdom about anabolic steroids, won over a large crowd in Fletcher Hall. It had been a hit at Sundance, and seemed to have enough popular appeal to make a splash at the box office. Before screening at Full Frame it had been bought by sports mogul Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures, and after it opened in theaters on May 30th, it was well-received by critics, earning 97% positive notices on the online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
After 12 weeks in theaters, BIGGER STRONGER FASTER* earned all of $308,575 (source: boxofficemojo.com). By contrast, IN BRUGES, a fiction film which was also well-received at Sundance but had modest box-office expectations, earned $7,800,000—$459,575 just in the opening weekend.
Even last year’s most critically acclaimed documentary, Full Frame Jury and Audience Award (and Oscar) winner MAN ON WIRE, managed just $2,962,242 in ticket sales, ranking it the 189th highest-grossing movie of 2008. That’s less than 1/10th what PAUL BLART: MALL COP earned in its opening weekend.
It’s no secret that documentaries are a smaller market than fiction films, but for the last decade or so we’ve been hearing more and more about the increasing commercial viability of non-fiction film. However, outside of a few anomalous breakouts (like Michael Moore productions and MARCH OF THE PENGUINS), the larger American audience is still shrugging its shoulders at anything that wasn’t dreamed up by a screenwriter. In Friday’s panel discussion at the Durham Arts Council, Wanted for Review, Thom Powers, a programmer at the Toronto Film Festival and the IFC Center in New York, pointed out that critics have been nearly as apt as their audiences to ignore documentary films.
Which is surprising, given that critics as a group can’t be said to share the tastes of American moviegoers (the aforementioned PAUL BLART, for example, so far the biggest hit of 2009, has received 32% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes); as well, it’s widely believed that the documentary offerings at film festivals are stronger than their fictional counterparts (a view that was voiced by INCONVENIENT TRUTH filmmaker David Guggenheim in a trailer shown at Sundance this year: “The dirty little secret about Sundance is that the best films every year are the documentaries.”)
Speaking on the panel with Powers were Eugene Hernandez, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief at IndieWire, an influential internet news source for independent film; and Ronnie Scheib, a critic for Variety, the Hollywood trade magazine known for its pithy, industry-insider reviews. Powers opened the discussion by lamenting the passing of one or more “golden ages” of film criticism (e.g., late-’60s and early-’70s in the US, the heyday of Cahiers du Cinema in France in the ’50s and ’60s), when the best film criticism was part of a larger national intellectual discourse. He argued that the increasingly high profile of socially relevant documentaries, coupled with the natural suitability of documentary films as “vessels of ideas,” makes them the perfect vehicle for that kind of conversation today.
Instead, Powers argues that documentaries are underappreciated by critics, most of whom “came attracted by fiction films, which is natural enough, particularly when you think that five to 10 years ago there just wasn’t this critical mass of documentaries.” Now that there are a large number of quality documentary films produced each year, he said, it’s time for them to get equal attention; equitable coverage might more closely resemble book reviews, with a more or less even split between fiction and non-fiction.
Powers made his case most pointedly when he noted that “IndieWire, at the end of the year, asks critics, ‘What were your 10 favorite films, and what was your one favorite documentary film?’ …Maybe we could find someone who could change that.” Here he turned slowly and dramatically to direct a piercing stare at Hernandez, sitting next to him, which was met with laughter by Hernandez and the audience.
He then asked Scheib whether, as a writer, she takes a different approach to fiction and non-fiction films. She responded that, as an inveterate adherent of auteur theory, she sees a film as first and foremost the product of the director, whether the director is working in fiction or non-, and her approach as a writer is the same; but she argued that the great formal variety of documentary films makes it difficult to specify “documentary” as a category in which one can hope to specialize as a reviewer—“there are essay films, there are experimental films, there are personal diary films… so again, one of the problems is, you’re asking a critic to specialize in non-fiction documentary films in the same way you’d ask a critic to specialize in fiction films. And people don’t. You specialize in noir, or gangster films… you need different critics specializing in different aspects.”
The discussion touched on a range of further topics, at greater length than the scope of this blog post. All the panelists agreed, however, that whatever the ratio of verbiage devoted to fiction and non-fiction films, the practice of film criticism, and the forums in which it’s disseminated, are changing drastically, and none would hazard a prediction about the future of the industry. Tellingly, Scheib, a print reviewer, is pessimistic about the prospects of film criticism as a viable, remunerative profession (she says that, for instance, when she started writing for Variety, they used to publish 60 online reviews of films in the Tribeca Film Festival, and now they’re down to 20), while Hernandez, one of the pioneers of film reportage on the Web, professed a cautious optimism.
Whether film criticism can survive the possible impending death of print media is a question for another panel. But if the long-term growth in audiences at Full Frame over the past dozen years is any indication, perhaps consumer demand will eventually place documentary film on an equal footing with narrative film in word counts of reviews published, if not in dollars recouped at the box office (or Netflix, or Hulu, or what have you). But all agreed on the best advice for the earnest young blogger seated in the front row, who asked about a career in film criticism: “Don’t quit your day job.”