Docu crowd faces harsh reality

Silverdocs attendees frustrated by difficulty getting films in theaters

Midway through a panel at the documentary festival Silverdocs, producer Julie Goldman offered a succinct thought.

"There are a lot of good movies being made," she said Friday. "And a lot of them aren't going to get a chance to play in theaters."

It was a sound bite so telling it could have been featured in one of the many top-notch docus screening here. As events over the past few days at this AFI/Discovery Channel festival — which serves as a kind of ground zero for the documentary zeitgeist — point up, these are strange and contradictory times for the form.

Creatively, the documentary is exploding, with new voices and approaches emerging almost every week. Yet it was hard not to feel a sense of foreboding at and around the host AFI theater during the weekend as docus remain mired in what is now a nearly two-year commercial dry spell.

Silverdocs, in its sixth year and with an expanded eight-day schedule that wraps today, allows for a certain kind of purist enthusiasm; it's where fans even flock to see sober films like the inner-city education meditation "Hard Times at Douglass High" or daring films like the surprisingly suspenseful "The Garden," Scott Hamilton Kennedy's look at a South Central Los Angeles community garden.

With a concurrent docu confab, it's also where industry heavyweights quietly brainstorm. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney strides the halls planning a distribution or legal strategy, Spike Lee is feted with a retrospective and players like former Miramax powerbroker Matthew Hiltzik tout their producing projects.

Yet for all the creative energy, the air at the fest at times hung heavy with commercial questions.

Docu-friendly distributors like ThinkFilm are struggling, screens are crowded and audience appetite is low. There's a general feeling of anxiety over whether it's possible to ever get back to the period a few years when movies like "Super Size Me" and "March of the Penguins" proved docus could yield big boxoffice business.

In offering tips on how to market effectively, documentarian Sandi Dubowski had his own take.

"You have to be lucky so that the distributor you sign with is going to be around in a few years," he said. (partialdiff)