Log in

Documentaries Move Special Features to the Foreground

17 Jul, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

On most ‘A' theatrical titles with piles of bonus features, at least one or two of those features are documentaries, usually about the filmmaking process.

So when a documentary is The Show, what does that mean for special features? In most cases, it means bonus materials are sparse.

But in a few cases, documentaries arrive on disc with top-flight extras that rival the kind that are common on theatrical feature titles.

One such title is Artisan Home Entertainment's Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the story of Motown session musicians the Funk Brothers. Much of what became known as the “Motown Sound” rests on their musical talent, yet they got little recognition before the film.

“All you've got to do is watch it once, and you fall in love with the Funk Brothers and you have this need to learn more about them,” said Randy Wells, Artisan's executive brand director, who was instrumental in putting the extras together. “Forty-five years went by and you really knew nothing about them, so that was just a natural extension with DVD. It doesn't fit in the movie but with DVD it's just a natural.”

Of course, theatrical release boosts a documentary's visibility and, therefore, the motivation to stack up bonus materials for the home video release. Like Artisan's Motown, another theatrical success (by documentary standards) that will include a mountain of extras is MGM's Bowling for Columbine.

“We started talking about the DVD for Bowling for Columbine almost immediately after acquiring it. We knew as soon as we saw it that what you want to do is talk about it. We had questions and we knew consumers would have questions,” said Julia Simmons, MGM Home Entertainment's executive director of marketing, “Everybody immediately knew after the Oscars that everyone knew who Michael Moore was, even if they had never seen Bowling for Columbine.

Filmmaker Moore's political harangue at the Academy Awards only heightened the film's profile, which was bound to leave a lot of fans as well as folks who had never heard of him with questions.

“What Michael wanted to do was answer some of the questions, questions he's had personally and that he got on his Web site. People wondered what was the reaction in Littleton after the film came out,” Simmons said. “One of the things on this DVD is a teacher's guide; we have never done that before. It's quite extensive. It is 59 pages long. It's everything from how to talk about it, different kinds of seminars we can have, tolerance education.”

The disc, due Aug. 19, also includes a “Return to Littleton” featurette, a “Corporate Cops” satire from Moore's short-lived series “The Awful Truth,” TV interviews with Moore, his political action guide and Marilyn Manson's “Fight Song” music video.

Although the subjects' recognition level in Columbine and Motown were at opposite ends of the profile spectrum, they led to the same conclusion.

“Our thought is, if a consumer is interested enough to pick up a documentary, it's because they are really interested in that subject and they want to know as much as they can about it,” Wells said.

Theatrical profile is not the only yardstick for special features on documentaries. Indeed, Docurama's 50th title, Lost in La Mancha, chronicles the disasters that befell filmmaker Terry Gilliam's efforts to bring The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to the screen. The pitfalls presented in La Mancha range from ordinary challenges like a lower budget than sought; to the extreme, like a poor quality soundstage and an ailing leading man; to the utterly absurd: F-16s flying overhead as the crew tried to shoot a medieval story and a cataclysmic flash flood in the Spanish desert that washed away painstakingly arranged exterior scene setups and equipment.

While viewers can easily share the crew's frustration while watching La Mancha, the two-disc set is loaded with talent and observer interviews and deleted scenes. Stills of storyboards, costume design and other production elements give viewers a sense of what might have been.

“Documentaries often call out for extensive features for viewers who want to drill down to explore the subject matter,” said Susan Margolin, COO of New Video's Docurama label. “Perhaps one of the most interesting ways the DVD format benefits documentaries specifically is the ‘Where are they now?' feature. Since documentaries deal with real people who have real life stories to tell, one always wonders after seeing a doc: ‘What happened to him/her? What is the next chapter?' With DVD, often we can tell that story. A recent example is the 10th anniversary release of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Sundance favorite, Brother's Keeper. Much has happened to the town and the characters in the film in the last 10 years, and we were able to include an epilogue on the DVD that brings the audience in and reveals what's taken place since they left off.”

Docurama's release schedule is picking up steam, so the label is actively seeking new elements for its rising tide of future releases.

“A year ago we were releasing one title a month,” Savage said. “Now it's two, by the end of the year three, and next year four a month.”

Add Comment