Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: The Sundance Cycle

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My dancing days are done! I’m back home from Sundance, and well-satiated by a great dose of documentaries. It’s been a pretty remarkable festival for docs. Despite some pre-festival chatter that docs might get a cold reception, the films at Sundance showed a real diversity of subject matter and accomplishments in craft — and ranged from mainstream docs with high production values (Made in America and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden) to lower-budget films that still tell a strong story. The non-fiction form was clearly alive and kicking in Park City; you could even overhear news about the latest doc acquisitions on the ubiquitious shuttle buses. Among the under-the-radar (until now) docs that were getting the best buzz are Nerakhoon: (The Betrayal), Trouble the Water, Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains, and The Order of Myths.

It was interesting to observe the selling of Nanette Burstein‘s doc American Teen, bought on Tuesday by Paramount Vantage for a reported $1 million for world rights, except for the U.K. It’s a natural fit — Paramount Vantage and MTV are both owned by Viacom — but it was a deal that took a long time to hammer out. About 36 hours before the announcement, I was told by one “Indiewood” head involved in the negotiations that American Teen had sold to Sony Pictures Classics, but that never came to fruition. There was lots of talk about the film’s fate last weekend, proving once again that documentaries are now the fodder of the same heated conjecture and behind-the-scenes sniping and dealing as fiction features. (Nerakhoon director Ellen Kuras suggested to me that this evolution may not be such a great thing, but we’ll get into that another day.)

I spoke with a number of producers, directors, distributors and festival programmers about whether or not the doc industry might be slowing down after a year of disappointing box office sales and crash-and-burns by highly touted docs (like In the Shadow of the Moon amd My Kid Could Paint That) from last year’s Sundance. The dominant opinion among those I talked to? It’s the fault of the films (and maybe the distributors) — not the form. Maybe so, but I personally still like both Kid and Moon very much.

My final event at the festival was the Sundance Channel’s massive party at the 350 Main restaurant. The giant venue was packed, and people overflowed into the bar next door. I really enjoyed talking with director Rachel Libert (Beyond Conviction), who told me about her new documentary film, Semper Fi: Always Faithful — an Erin Brockovich-esque story set on the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in North Carolina. She was in good spirits, having recently secured financing for the project, including a grant from the Sundance Institute. And so the Sundance cycle continues…

This is Tom’s last post from Sundance. He’ll be back next Friday with another installment of Doc Soup.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki