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Thirst for Knowledge

20 Sep, 2002 By: Dan Bennett

Real life and video are more frequent companions than ever before. Several documentary video companies are flourishing, and with events such as the Sept. 11 anniversary allowing for multiple retrospectives and investigations, attention toward documentaries has followed.

“We do have our own section in special interest,” said Jeremiah Wehler, rental video buyer for retail chain Hastings Entertainment. “They don't do bang-up numbers, but a few are consistent renters and sellers.”

The time may have come for a change in consumer preference, Wehler said.

“VHS has been doing better than DVD in most cases, but I expect that to change with the 9/11 documentaries that are just now hitting,” he said.

John Thrasher, VP of video purchasing for Tower Records and Video, agrees September kicks off a strong period for documentaries.

“September should be a great month for the category, with so many companies devoting a lot of emphasis to the 9/11 anniversary,” Thrasher said. “Most of these titles are tied into donations for relief agencies.”

Tower has always carried a healthy selection of documentaries.

“Although sales for the category are, as a rule, fairly light, topical commentaries on current events that the public has shown a keen interest in can generate good sales,” Thrasher said.

War, a subject long fascinating documentary filmmakers, makes up a significant portion of the documentary film market. With war in our recent past, and overseas battles on the horizon, interest in military topics is high.

Oregon-based Marathon Music & Video, distributed by partner company Entertainment Distribution Inc., specializes in military topics while also carrying dozens of documentary titles that cover comedy, nostalgia and television.

The company has felt the public's increased interest. Extras on military DVDs allow for plenty of insider information. Marathon's DVD debut of the CBS special “Air Power,” narrated by Walter Cronkite, adds elements not seen before.

“This is a classic documentary, and it required us to present a comprehensive extra feature, including an inside look at the B-24 liberator, the B-17 Flying Fortress, the P-51 Mustang, the P-47 Thunderbolt and many other crucial aircraft,” said Lanny Lee, director of sales and marketing for EDI.

The documentary also adds new color interviews with the allied and enemy pilots.

Such interviews, as well as the Sept. 11 documentary titles, may prompt consumers to spend more time with home video. What is important to many suppliers is avoiding sensationalism. WGBH Boston Home Video, which has been distributing quality documentaries for several years, has three NOVA titles touching on current events, including Why the Towers Fell, a scientific and architectural study of the tragedy.

“This touches on a whole new angle,” said Sarah Slater, director of sales for WGBH. “With NOVA, people trust that it isn't going to be sensational.”

Likewise, Commanding Heights: A Battle for the New Economy, a comprehensive study of the current world economy, brings home the fact that recent economic events prove we are all closer together than we think moneywise.

“Global interest in the economy is incredibly high, more so than many people realize,” Slater said. “This is programming that presents world economic issues in terms adults and teens can understand.”

WGBH Boston Home Video has released 220 documentaries during the past decade, with 28 titles released so far this year. Past accomplishments -- still selling as catalog titles -- include Africans in America, Evolution, Sister Wendy's American Collection, Vietnam: A Television History and The Battle Over Citizen Kane, as well as NOVA documentaries The Miracle of Life and The Battle of the Bulge. The titles regularly receive play on PBS stations just before video release.

“We enjoy a television broadcast platform, which has been important for branding,” Slater said. “People have learned to trust the brand and know they are getting quality programming. We have our logo design on every package, meant to remind people of the logo they see when they watch a PBS showing.”

WGBH played things a little differently during the DVD conversion the past two years. Instead of rushing all the catalog titles through, the company held back, preferring not to get lost in the logjam. WGBH is now starting a well-planned, careful conversion.

“If we had gone full force, consumers might have ignored us in favor of the feature titles that were doing the same thing with higher visibility,” Slater said. “Now we're moving our DVD titles into Tower, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble and elsewhere, and those outlets will continue to grow for us. We also had a lot of interest from mom-and-pop shops at the annual Video Software Dealers Association convention, and we're making an effort to provide for that market.”

WGBH has done particularly well with online retailing. The company also is pushing hard on international sales.

“This programming is more familiar to the international community than ever before,” Slater said. “International distribution of documentaries is a major market for the future.”

That's true especially with name titles, such as the Koch Vision release of Carl Sagan's “Cosmos” series, the most popular science-based TV series of all time, seen by an estimated 700 million viewers. The series makes its fully loaded DVD debut at the end of September.

“With this series, Carl Sagan introduced the world to a breathtaking look at the history of mankind from the dawn of time,” said Koch Vision director Khris Tahmin.

Until now, “Cosmos” has been unavailable at retail outlets. Cosmos Studios made the decision to release to a mainstream audience following massive interest from consumers and retailers. The footage and special effects remain as fresh and riveting as ever, for both viewers seeing the series again and audiences discovering it for the very first time. There is a major reairing planned for late 2002 on the A&E Network.

Other accessible documentary programming arrives through BBC Home Video, with such titles as The Blue Planet: Seas of Life Gift Set and The Life of Birds: DVD Gift Set.

Wider content availability in the marketplace has helped retailers, said Burton Cromer, VP of home video for BBC Direct.

“We're finding that among major retailers, even in the mass electronics category, where our titles didn't move that well before, our titles are doing much better than they expected,” Cromer said. “What partners such as Warner Home Video are doing is reminding retailers and consumers that our British product is seen on PBS, [which is] about as American as anything.”

Big news in the documentary video world also arrives with the partnership between New Video; its documentary arm, Docurama; and the Independent Film Channel. The partnership plans 12 home video releases a year.

“IFC has been distributing films very successfully, and a lot of them are documentaries,” said Steve Savage, president of Docurama. “They were in a need of a partnership, someone who understands how to get the titles to the market and find audiences, and that's what we've been doing.”

As a fellow independent, it was a natural fit, Savage said.

“We've always been oriented toward independent filmmaking, so we have an affection for what IFC does,” Savage said. “That affection will show in our packaging, which will be very well done and create awareness of our partnership. IFC has pushed all the right buttons as far as branding themselves and cultivating a market. Now it's our job to see things through to the cash wrap.”

The collaboration kicks things off with Go Tigers!, the critically acclaimed documentary on the 1999 season of a tremendously popular high school football team in a small Ohio town. The DVD version will have extras, another boon for the genre.

“We're trying to make our DVDs as robust as the films themselves,” Savage said. “I think we're witnessing, with the documentaries out there now in theaters and on video, tremendous creative ingenuity that will continue finding its way into the commercial mainstream.

“You look at something like The Kid Stays in the Picture and just know. Documentaries are taking us places we've never been before.”

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