Documentaries are rising stars in film
US actor Alec Baldwin (L) and director James Toback pose on May 21, 2013 during a photocall for the film "Seduced and Abandoned" at the Cannes Film Festival. Blockbuster features that cost $100 million or more may grab the headlines, but the area of filmmaking that is growing fastest is documentaries, say industry sources at the Cannes Film Festival.
Driving the trend, they say, is a widening demand for films that go beyond fiction and instead touch on today's realities.
Helping to meet it are the tools of cheap digital technology and video-on-demand, which are smashing the hegemony of big studios and TV channels on determining who gets to make a film and who gets to watch it, they add.
Then there is the Internet, which provides promotional buzz as well as financing through crowd-sourcing.
"Documentaries today account for 16 percent of the films being marketed in Cannes," said Jerome Paillard, director of the Marche du Film, where thousands of film buyers and sellers congregate.
"Five years ago, it was eight percent."
The big breakthrough for documentaries was arguably in 2004, when maverick US director Michael Moore picked up the Palme d'Or -- usually earmarked for features -- with "Fahrenheit 9/11," a diatribe against George W. Bush's war on terror.
No documentaries are included in the 20 titles running for this year's top prize.
But plenty are featuring in other competition categories or out of competition -- and some are being acclaimed.
They include Claude Lanzmann's epic interviews with the last "Jewish Elder" to run the Nazi ghettos in eastern Europe; "Seduced and Abandoned," a witty and thought-provoking work on the nature of movie-making by Hollywood insiders James Toback and Alec Baldwin; and "L'Escale," or "Stop-Over," by Iranian-Swiss Kaveh Bakhtiari, about illegal Iranian immigrants eking out a living in Athens.
A glimpse at the film market's "doc corner," where nearly 300 documentaries are being pushed, shows the potential for much more modest budgets, too.
Their focus ranges from aspects of history to a portrayal of a rundown neighbourhood, and themes touching on the environment or sport.
Cheapness is what is helping to push the trend, said Tyler Konney of Taylor & Dodge, a Los Angeles marketing company that is selling "After Porn Ends," a documentary about 12 pornography actors who struggle to resume normal life after a career in the sex industry.
"If you own a Mac and a camcorder, you can make a documentary, basically. That wasn't the case so much, 10 years ago or even five years ago. But also people are doing some neat subject matter," he said.
Documentaries tend to migrate into two categories, he said.
One is a film that comes up with a new angle on an existing market, building on something in which people are already interested.
The other is a work that breaks new ground, "something nobody knows about and bringing it to a market of artistic appreciation and then the commercial market place, then seeing if that works," said Konney.
Business strategists say the rise of documentaries began more than a decade ago.
Underpinning the trend, they believe, is a sense that people want "ownership" -- a desire for one's voice to be heard.
Alienation, poverty, social dysfunction and the side effects of globalisation are common themes.
"Documentaries are becoming more popular because they help to give a nuanced response to socio-economic problems that are more and more a source of concern," said Irene Challand, head of documentaries at Radio Television Suisse, which are one of the backers of "L'Escale."
"Since September 11, 2001, we have been living in really confusing times, and I think there is a thirst for a meaningful relationship with reality," said Martijn te Pas, who is in charge of programming at Amsterdam's International Documentary Film Festival.
"Documentaries can offer that. Not just that, of course -- they can also have other functions, they can be entertaining or very poetic. But people today want more than escapism."
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