David Zurawik

From 'Salinger' to 'Mitt' and 'Chicagoland,' TV rediscovering documentaries

Documentaries were supposed to be a dying genre -- and living proof that we were becoming dumber as a nation.

Reality TV is cheaper and easier to make. And who has time for lengthy, in-depth explorations of anything any more in the age of Twitter? Docs were dead, the conventional wisdom decreed, another victim of our rats-on-LSD attention spans.

But everywhere you look these days, it seems as if there's another documentary premiering. And some filmmakers believe that's the result of a change in audience attitudes toward the troubled state of American life today.

Last week on PBS, it was an "American Masters" biography of J.D. Salinger, and it drove the late author's 1951 novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," to No. 1 on Amazon the night it aired, according to the Associated Press.

This weekend, Netflix is streaming "Mitt," an in-depth look with exceptional, backstage access to Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential candidate.

Monday, HBO debuts "Herblock — The Black & The White," a film about Herbert L. Block, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist whose work graced the pages of The Washington Post for more than half a century.

And on Thursday, CNN offers "The Sixties: The British Invasion," from producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman (HBO's "John Adams") and Mark Herzog (History Channel's "Gettysburg").

In coming months, the cable news channel will be launching big-ticket documentary series from Academy-Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side") and the team of Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, who did "Brick City."  "Chicagoland," the eight-part documentary from Levin and Benjamin, will debut at 10 p.m. March 6.

Fired up by the ratings success of its October showing of "Blackfish," a controversial film about a killer whale in captivity, CNN is becoming one of the larger buyers and makers of documentaries on TV. But programmers and producers say there's far more to the resurgence of the genre than just one cable channel opening its wallet in hopes of finding larger prime-time audiences.

Changes in technology, which have created new streaming services like Netflix and video on demand forums such as HBO GO, are part of the explanation for the new lease on life for TV documentaries these days.

"When I go to festivals and talk to filmmakers, I do think there's a feeling that there are more players, more buyers, more technology that's enabled more platforms to be created," says Amy Entelis, senior vice president for talent and content development for CNN Worldwide. "And so, it feels like it is more of a golden age in the sense that more of this work will be exhibited."

Terry Wrong, the ABC News executive producer of "Hopkins," a 2008 Peabody-Award-winning deep dive inside the culture of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital, feels technology is also allowing more people to make documentaries for those platforms.

"Documentary-making is now a readily available way of expression because of the technological changes," he says. "I mean, look at the guy [Malik Bendjelloul] who shot part of a documentary ["Searching for Sugar Man"] with his iPhone and won an Academy Award … Think about how many of these people making films today would have made them if they had to schlep a 16 mm [camera] on their shoulder... ."

But Wrong also sees a "convergence" of social and cultural factors contributing to the rise in nonfiction programming.

"I think there's a kind of re-awakened social consciousness in the wake of the big issues of our day – the recession and climate change and the two wars," he explains. "Documentaries ... feed that viewership."

Baltimore's Richard Chisolm, an Emmy-award-winning documentarian, also links the rise in nonfiction films to what he hopes is a heightened social consciousness.

Noting that he had done photography the past year on four feature documentaries that are now playing in festivals and theaters, Chisolm said, "That's kind of new for me. That's kind of unusual, and I'm hoping maybe it's a symbol that there is a better marketplace for nonfiction cinema. Whether it's large screen or small screen... it's reaching people who care."

Even more surprising, he says, is the fact that the films deal with such topics as the Federal Reserve ("Money for Nothing") and income inequality ("Inequality for All") — critically important but not particularly sexy issues.

"At least, they're making these films and somebody's promoting them, and people are going to them," he says. "And, of course, they'll make most of their money on Amazon Prime or Netflix or something later. But I'm kind of impressed that at least the long-form, serious documentary is getting some respect."

"Cafeteria Man," a Chisolm-directed film about the efforts of chef Tony Geraci to reform the food menu for students in Baltimore City public schools, is slated to air this year on PBS. But for the past two years, it has been getting some of that respect and building an audience at more than 20 film festivals.

"It's no longer possible to just make a documentary, and then hand it over to PBS and walk away and say 'thank you' and have it be broadcast," he says. "You, as a filmmaker, have to invent your audience… You have to create not just the film any more, but some kind of discussion around it … It's about making the film integrate with society directly."

While that might take years for an independent filmmaker, CNN can create that kind of discussion overnight.

"What CNN can do on this platform is quite unique," Entelis says. "We have the ability to create a conversation around a film and to extend the life of that film, because of the way we're set up where all of our programs can take content of a documentary and create more programs around that content."

Entelis says CNN did that with "Blackfish" and "Pandora's Promise," a film about nuclear energy.

"With several of our films last year, we did a program following the film that allowed several different voices to have their say if they disagreed with the film," she said. "We [also] did two 'Crossfires' based in the controversies in our documentaries… We have the ability to take the subjects of the film and talk about them from our morning show to our daytime shows, to 'Crossfire,' to our prime time shows. And I think filmmakers really find that appealing."

I am sure they do. But don't expect all the 24/7 cable channels to embrace docs in prime time. While there's obvious synergy between nightly cable shows in need of topics and documentaries that aim to focus attention on issues of the day, it only makes real business sense if you have lowly rated shows like "Piers Morgan Live" at 9 or "Anderson Cooper Later" at 10 p.m. on CNN.

You wouldn't pre-empt Bill O'Reilly on Fox News or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC for a documentary.


Still, the commitment to docs at CNN is good news for the genre — and for that part of the audience looking to be better informed.

I'm most intrigued by Wrong's suggestion that there is a growing audience looking for new information and clear-eyed analysis in these tumultuous times.

Clearly, some media programmers agree — or we wouldn't be seeing such a rich range of nonfiction films on all of our screens these days.

Now, if some of the docs could just rack up some "Duck Dynasty" numbers.

Indicative of the revitalization and robust marketplace for documentaries is the "Realscreen" summit running Sunday through Wednesday at the Washington Hilton. Jeff Zucker, president of CNN International, will be featured in the keynote session at 9:45 a.m. Monday in the hotel's International Ballroom Center."