On the day of the Cannes documentary brunch, which Screen is sponsoring, Colin Brown reports how film-makers are reinventing the idea of a non-fiction feature film and how distributors are helping them with these hybrids.

Mekong Hotel, part of this year’s official selection, concerns the making of a film about ancient flesh-eating spirits who are embodied in a mother and daughter. If this sounds like a typical behind-the scenes documentary about the shenanigans of a schlocky genre flick, think again. The 61-minute film, which takes place in a small hotel along the Mekong River as it threatens to flood, is directed by Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It comes with the same signature surrealist touches that have won him three Cannes festival prizes, including the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in 2010. Once again, our notion of what constitutes a documentary film has been challenged. Even the running time defies conventions by falling outside the accepted scheduling norms for both cinemas and television networks.

Weerasethakul, whose films have always explored the shifting boundaries between documentary and fiction, revels in taking creative licence with the observational storytelling form.

“I don’t think reality exists in the movies,” he says. “One is just trying to capture moments and reconstruct them to simulate your view, your understanding. Mekong Hotel is conscious of these layers and levels of distortion. So I think that it can be called a ‘documentary’ in a classical sense. It is a contemplation on making a fiction film.”

Mekong Hotel is not the first documentary to blend in elements of magical realism. It is one of a growing wave of non-fiction films incorporating stylistic choices more typically associated with narrative movie-making than with the detachment of cinema vérité. Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, another Cannes selection four years ago, broke new ground by using animation to reconstruct recent history; other documentaries have gone on to use every audience engagement trick in the cinematic playbook, from 3D and gonzo film-making to the contrivances of mysteries and thrillers.

“Interest in documentaries, and especially hybrid documentaries, is growing rapidly,” notes Tine Fischer, director for Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX International Documentary Film Festival.

Fischer singles out cause célèbres such as The Ambassador, the latest stunt film by Danish satirist Mads Brügger in which he poses as a decadent white diplomat in Central Africa, as well as Wim Wenders’ 3D performance film Pina, Michelangelo Frammartino’s poetic meditation Le Quattro Volte, and Bombay Beach, in which Israeli-born film-maker Alma Har’el choreographed dance-fantasy sequences and inserted them into her chronicle of a Californian town teetering on the brink.

If documentary storytelling has mutated, so too has the method for getting those documentaries seen by audiences. There are as many new hybrid forms of documentary distribution as there are new strains of non-fiction expression.

Documentaries have been dressed up for public consumption in everything from traditional window treatments to simultaneous video-on-demand and theatrical releases and myriad digital-only distribution strategies. It is a mix-and-match business with few hard-and-fast rules except maybe one: theatrical exhibition still finds itself at the top of the pyramid.

Look at Denmark where cinema-goers nationwide flock to watch a title handpicked by DOX:BIO, a documentary film club affiliated with CPH:DOX, on the first Wednesday of every other month. These are screened simultaneously across more than 50 cinemas, followed by a live Q&A streaming event.

“The audience attendance for 2011 surpassed all expectations,” says Fischer. “With more than 77,000 people attending last year, the documentary genre is proven to be alive and kicking.”

When it comes to standing out in a shrill world of reality TV and user-generated content, nothing quite beats the big screen. The media attention and critical appraisal that comes with festival glory and a decent run at the box office can reverberate long into a documentary’s on-demand afterlife.

Sustained theatrical demand

Fortunately, the number of films that achieve such theatrical nirvana is still surprisingly healthy - resilient enough, in fact, for distributors to start talking about a sustained marketplace for theatrical documentaries as opposed to one of its periodic renaissances. With each success, the industry is learning which documentaries work best at the box office.

“These things have tended to go in cycles,” observes Josh Braun, whose New York-based sales and production company Submarine Entertainment has found itself thrust into the midst of several late-night festival negotiations for documentary titles.

“In 2008 theatrical distributors were hesitant to consider Valentino: The Last Emperor and Food, Inc,” he says. “Of course, they were both significant hits and helped pave the way for films like Cave Of Forgotten Dreams and Buck to trigger bidding wars a few years later. And of course those films were significant hits which paved the way for interest in films this year such as Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, The Queen Of Versailles and Searching For Sugar Man.”

This wave of theatrical interest has carried over to the UK, where Senna has raced to nearly $5m in gross receipts for Universal Pictures International, making it the third highest-performing documentary in the territory behind Fahrenheit 9/11 and March Of The Penguins. Kevin Macdonald’s Bob Marley documentary Marley was also popular.

But it is not just studio-released celebrity biographies that are grabbing the market. UK documentary specialist Dogwoof grossed around $484,000 (£300,000) with Dreams Of A Life, a partially re-enacted portrait of the life of a woman who lay dead in her London flat for three years before being found in 2003.

These are not isolated success stories, believes Dogwoof founder and chairman Andy Whittaker. “The big difference between now and, say, the previous mini-booms for documentary is the audience sees documentaries as theatrical films now,” he suggests.

“And they are as likely to go to a cinema to watch a documentary as they would a foreign-language film. Mainly it is down to the simple fact film-makers are making better docs. Think The Interrupters, Food, Inc., Catfish, Pina, Senna.

“These are interesting times, so much so that we are putting our money where our mouths are and setting up a production fund. The aim is to fund more films like Dreams Of A Life, Bill Cunningham New York and Tabloid.”

Dogwoof’s move into production financing is a response to a new market dynamic dictating which documentaries are being backed. With fewer international television slots for documentary features, it has been left to foundations and NGOs to pick up the slack and offset the decline in available TV money. But while such deep new pockets are welcome, they come with agendas.

“If a film is not issue-based, then film-makers are now struggling to find funding,” says Whittaker. “This has created a gap for film-makers with a great story and characters. And it’s these films that audiences want to see, as the box-office hits have shown. In these recessionary times, audiences are looking for more escapism, so films like Searching For Sugar Man and Marley will do well theatrically. I expect a natural balance will evolve.”

“It’s up and down, as it always seems to be in this industry. New doors opening as others close,” notes Julie Goldman, the New York producer of Buck who maintains close strategic ties with two of the UK’s highest-profile documentary production houses, Passion Pictures and Red Box Films, through her Motto Pictures. “My sense is foundations are getting much more involved and are often putting money into the same projects. They are communicating with each other more and becoming more sophisticated in their decision making.”

This herding instinct among foundations has not only funnelled money in narrower directions, it also means film-makers are doing more and more of the heavy lifting in terms of outreach and advocacy efforts.

Submarine’s Braun says: “As far as funding goes, it seems harder than ever to find independent financing for feature documentaries perhaps with the exception of cause and issue films like Bully that tapped into a wide range of funds and soft dollars. Ironically, there seems to be more money out there to fund films that are less likely to work at the box office in a traditional way. That puts the pressure on creating smart social-media campaigns where an issue film can tap into a pre-sold audience but not strictly through throwing money at traditional advertising dollars. That, of course, often ends up in the lap of the film-maker who is forced to become a social marketer and an adjunct to a theatrical distributor’s grassroots efforts. But it can pay off and may be the only way for certain films to find a wider audience.”

Since documentary film-makers tend to be so invested in their projects anyway, the majority need little prompting to reach out to their potential constituencies. Such commitment, together with access to social-media tools, helped persuade IFC Entertainment and its various distribution labels in the US to venture back into acquiring documentaries. Among its recent pick-ups is Room 237, the highly subjective Directors’ Fortnight documentary that explores the suggested hidden meanings of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

“We shied away from documentaries for a while because they seemed so labour-intensive,” admits Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment and Sundance Selects. “But the film-makers know their audiences so well that we found we could work very closely with them and achieve great results.”

In the case of both Buck and Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Sehring, who pioneered the theatrical/VoD day-and-date distribution model in 2006, was even persuaded to revert to a theatrical-first release pattern that was only followed by an on-demand cable offering towards the tail-end of their theatrical runs. This was partly dictated by necessity: much of the core audience for Buck, about ‘horse whisperer’ Buck Brannaman, were located near movie theatres that could not play day-and-date with VoD. Across Montana, Wyoming and Texas, the cowboy-themed film played in venues that had never shown a documentary before, en route to a $4m domestic gross.

Grey area

The looming question now is whether the future generation of ticket buyers, the one which has grown up on YouTube, will remain as enamoured with theatrical documentaries as the present one. It is with the greying US cinema-goer in mind, rather than his offspring, that Jeff Lipsky, the indie veteran who co-founded October Films with the late Bingham Ray, has been tempted back into the distribution arena. His first release is the experimental gender-transformation documentary The Ballad Of Genesis And Lady Jaye. It will be followed by, among others, the Taviani brothers’ semi-documentary winner of Berlin’s Golden Bear, Caesar Must Die.

“We have been working with Jeff’s Adopt Films, which has been specifically targeting the generation of baby boomers because he believes they have more time to go to the theatre as they are older,” says Martin Marquet, a producer on Ballad. “With something as niche as this, I wouldn’t necessarily have ventured a traditional theatrical release, particularly given all the online platforms out there for those kinds of films. But given the raves from our festival tour, it made sense.”

The age factor, in a positive way, may also come into play for another documentary screening here in official selection. Fatih Akin’s Polluting Paradise is a lament to a Turkish village on the Black Sea that was effectively sacrificed when the government chose it as the location for a huge rubbish dump. What began as a personal crusade by Akin to use his celebrity clout in Turkey to save his grandfather’s village by prodding politicians into reversing the landfill decision, has evolved over the years into an ode to the village heroes struggling to cling on after those efforts failed. Akin took himself out of the film completely and let three-quarters of it be captured by the village photographer who was given a crash course by the German film-maker in shooting video.

The film will be released in Germany by Akin’s regular partner Pandora, looking to build on the local fascination for non-fiction films that has grown over the last decade, rather than trade on the film-maker’s credentials. Akin says it makes more sense to market it as a documentary than as a Fatih Akin film.

“I don’t know how big this audience will be but because it is about a village which young people are abandoning, leaving the older generation behind, that an older audience will identify with it far more,” he explains. “We have a lot of old people here in Germany, so there is definitely an audience.”