Tribeca: What's Behind the New Wave of Star-Studded Bio-Docs

Issue 14 BACKLOT Bio-Docs Muhammad Ali - H 2013
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Issue 14 BACKLOT Bio-Docs Muhammad Ali - H 2013

Richard Pryor, Tim Buckley, Gore Vidal, Elaine Stritch and Muhammad Ali are among the icons stepping into the spotlight in movies screening at the festival.

This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Showbiz icons, even those who once were considered behind-the-scenes players, are moving to center stage. From the Broadway play I'll Eat You Last, opening April 24 with Bette Midler impersonating the late superagent Sue Mengers, to HBO's planned documentary about writer-director Nora Ephron, who died in June, iconic entertainment figures are stepping into the spotlight.

The new wave of biopics and bio-docs also is washing ashore at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, where a number of documentary and dramatic features are targeting showbiz and cultural legends.

Among the latest entries in the rapidly expanding field is the documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which tackles the titular Broadway star and features Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Hal Prince and Alec Baldwin talking about the enduring influence of the 88-year-old performer, who concluded a five-night farewell-to-New-York engagement April 6 at the Cafe Carlyle.

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Also on tap is the narrative feature Greetings From Tim Buckley (with Penn Badgley taking on the mantle of Buckley's young son Jeff) and the documentaries Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic; I Got Somethin' to Tell You, Whoopi Goldberg's ode to pioneering comedienne Moms Mabley; Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia; and The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

"There is an abundance of docs on noted individuals this year," acknowledges Tribeca director of programming Genna Terranova, adding that "icons can often be the cultural beacons that help us navigate through our own time."

Famous names also help to sell tickets. "The icon doc enjoys a built-in audience, which bolsters its box-office prospects," says sales agent Kevin Iwashina, who is repping the Vidal film.

The current wave can be traced to the 2010 Tribeca fest, when the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work screened. Although the film had premiered and sold months earlier at Sundance, it gained momentum through its exposure to New York tastemakers at Tribeca. Opening theatrically two months later to strong reviews, the IFC release became a hit doc, with an impressive $2.9 million box-office haul.

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"Films about iconic characters like Joan Rivers have done well for us and often resonate with distributors and audiences alike," notes Submarine's Josh Braun, who repped Piece of Work as well as the Morton Downey Jr. doc Evocateur, which sold to Magnolia during last year's festival. "When they are done correctly, they provide an unvarnished glimpse inside the lives of well-loved individuals who haven't previously allowed access to their true selves. The mixture of curiosity and nostalgia is a huge draw."

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