Why Is James Franco Backing a Fashion Documentary?

Jame Franco

Franco broke out in Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks; also co-starred in Pineapple Express and Knocked Up.

The eccentric actor's production house's Gucci movie, at Tribeca, joins a Bergdorf Goodman doc as more viewers seek the story behind the look in theaters, Netflix and VOD.

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

There was a time when if you were curious about a fashion designer's world, you'd stroll into Rizzoli or Taschen and flip through sumptuous coffee-table books. Now, you go to the movie theater. Or Netflix. Or iTunes. Or video-on-demand. Fashion documentaries suddenly are as ubiquitous as chunky necklaces -- a feast for those who are visually hungry for a dose of beauty and excitement.

Two new fashion docs premiere this season. The Director, produced by James Franco's company Rabbit Bandini and directed by Christina Voros, pulls back the curtain on how a Gucci collection comes together; starring creative director Frida Giannini, it debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 21. Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's, the story of Manhattan's venerable 112-year-old luxury department store, was directed by Matthew Miele, produced by a group including Andrew Malloy, great-grandson of BG founder Andrew Goodman, and opens May 3.

PHOTOS: ACM Fashion: The 10 Best Dresses at the Academy of Country Music Awards

The first fashion doc of note was a grand experiment: Put out by Hachette Filipacchi Films and Miramax, 1995's Unzipped was a peek into the supermodels, celebs and bad WWD reviews of then-hot designer Isaac Mizrahi. Lo and behold, it made $2.8 million domestically. Notes Keith Estabrook, an Unzipped producer: "It had so much more fashion cred than [Robert Altman's] fictional Pret-a-Porter." The next major docudrama was 2008's Valentino: The Last Emperor, which took in $2 million stateside, followed by 2009's The September Issue, which generated $4 million. Since then, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2012) earned more than $1 million domestically. "People want to see [fashion docs] in theaters," says Voros, "because there's so much visual spectacle in them."

They are hardly pots of gold -- compared with the more than $119 million made by 2004 Michael Moore doc Fahrenheit 9/11 -- but they do garner PR for ancillary distribution down the road. "A film that doesn't perform at the box office might overperform in ancillary: 150 to 200 percent for DVD and VOD," says one doc maker. Explains Eric d'Arbeloff of Roadside Attractions, distributor of R.J. Cutler's September Issue: "It's all about the patchwork of ancillary deals. If you break even on the theatrical, that's good." An insider estimates promising box-office revenue of $3 million to $4 million for the current crop, adding, "Having James Franco on Gucci can't hurt. On the Bergdorf film, Bob and Jeanne Berney, distributors of Monster, are executive producers, so I would never count them out." Then there's always a second life on cable, where "this audience is an advertiser's wet dream," says Loic Prigent, who directed 2007's Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton for Arte television in France. "It's primarily female, they shop, they love fashion -- the web possibilities for these docs are endless."

VIDEO: Lisa Immordino Vreeland Talks Diana Vreeland Biopic, 'The Eye Has To Travel'

They also make the forbidding world of fashion more accessible. Admits notoriously shy Giannini, "I was intimidated, but I think that the glamour of the fashion industry conceals the work that goes into the process." For Franco, whose idea it was to follow Giannini for a year after he'd been the face of Gucci in 2008, the subject is compelling because "it's a cycle of creativity with high demands, new collections every few months, and you have to make something commercially viable all over the world. There's always a ticking clock." Frederic Tcheng, a Valentino producer, says: "The fashion world is filled with geniuses with an incredible sense of dialogue and inhumanly beautiful bodies. The audience is growing as rapidly as the customer base for luxury fashion. The global reach of the fashion brands makes it exciting."

The excitement is catching on, with four docs in development: one centered on fashion icon Iris Apfel (by Grey Gardens' Maysles brothers); one about a major designer by Vreeland director Lisa Immordino Vreeland (we're guessing Miuccia Prada); one on another retail institution from Miele (we're thinking Saks); and Mademoiselle C, about ex-French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld. "I've seen the interest for fashion grow so quickly," says Mademoiselle C director Fabien Constant. "Fashion people -- gorgeous, hysterical, hard workers, funny -- make the best characters in the world."