I was intrigued and troubled by David Poland’s recent blog post about the Writers Guild of America (WGA) awards. In his critique of the awards, Poland says:
“Third, has anyone outside of the WGA seen the top doc vote-getter, The Camden 28? The film was release [sic] by First Look in July on 1 screen and earned under $10,000. How in God’s name did this movie end up being the biggest vote getter at the Guild?”
He raises a number of issues that trouble me. First, in the spirit of full disclosure, The Camden 28 was included in POV’s 20th anniversary season with a broadcast premiere on 9/11/2007 and I like the film! I don’t need to spend too much space here defending the film despite Poland’s snide dismissal. For that, check out the review in The New York Times which says: “The Camden 28 is a brilliant merger of political outrage and filmmaking chops, and the most suspenseful movie in theaters right now.” A simple Google search comes up with dozens of other notices both praising and criticizing the film including the Grand Jury Award at the Philadelphia Film Festival. The film has been featured in dozens of other festivals internationally and had a limited theatrical run through the first class distributor First Run Features.
What Poland’s post raises, I believe, is the more problematic issue of equating box office success with the importance of a documentary a crude measurement. Let’s get real here, the vast majority of docs have a very limited box office appeal. I can’t believe that other WGA nominees made millions at the box office despite how much I might admire The Rape of Europa and the excellent No End In Sight. Most of them make little or no money. (As far as I’m aware, the WGA does not take box office in account in their awards, God bless them.)
Sure, there is a terrific festival circuit that has evolved so that filmmakers can reach hundreds, and occasionally thousands of people. Theatrically, a tiny percentage of docs will reach major audiences. At POV, we wholeheartedly support filmmakers who want to pursue these options through festivals and theatrical releases. It’s an important part of the whole life of a film. But that’s not where the major audience is for most films. So, where is that big audience and where does that leave doc filmmakers? Well, it may sound old fashioned, but television is still where doc filmmakers are going to reach their biggest audience, and it means that doc filmmakers (as most do) need to seek out all their audiences not just the hyper-engaged festival and theatrical audiences.
Case in point: The Camden 28. The film has had a long festival life, and a modest but acclaimed theatrical life. But the real audience was television over 700,000 people watched its premiere on the POV broadcast on PBS. Thousands more have watched and will watch re-broadcasts of the film. So, it seems to me that The Camden 28 is, in fact, pretty successful.