Every Monday, independent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.
This past weekend, American Teen hit theaters. I’d put it up there with about five other docs (Standard Operating Procedure, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, Young@Heart, Man on Wire and Religulous) as the most anticipated of 2008. The film won raves and a raging bidding war at Sundance. And although I’ve been told that it was bought for a lot less — about $1 million — than its producers were asking for (I’ve heard from $2 million to $4 million), it was clearly a vote of confidence by distributor Paramount Vantage. And the purchase makes sense. The company is an arm of the same beast, Viacom, that owns MTV — and the film has all the hopeful hooks of a summer box office winner.
The film follows the lives of five teenagers in Warsaw, Indiana, through basketball games, heartbreak and graduation. It’s really not a world apart from a lot of the reality television you can catch at home. In fact, one of the stars of the show, Megan, the “princess” in the group, told me that director Nannette Burstein told her it “would be a lot like Laguna Beach.” What does set it apart is the fact that Burstein gets closer to these kids, in a more honest and unexploitative way. She shot a thousand hours of footage and really won the trust of these kids. And I have to say that the film does indeed feel different than a Laguna Beach or The Hills show because of its sincerity — but also for some cinematic tricks that Burstein implements, some to great effect (visually tracing a series of text messages that the kids send during filming) and others less so (using computer animation to visualize the subjects’ fantasies).
But how American Teen might most set itself apart is in how it’s being marketed —to the hilt. The real life subjects of the doc have been brazenly positioned as archetypes (the geek, the rebel, the jock, etc.), and reduced to catchphrases. You can catch their Breakfast Club-like poster at the biggest multiplexes. Check it out at http://www.americanteenthemovie.com/. I don’t know the P & A budget, but it’s got to be high, in the millions. My impression is that the kids are willing participants in all this, and that in fact they’re lapping it all up (you can see/read/hear it all on their Facebook pages). And Burstein told me that she wanted to make a non-fiction film that felt like a John Hughes picture, so she clearly was not going for a Frederick Wiseman High School vibe.
What the marketing reminds me more of is… Reality Bites. Remember how Ben Stiller‘s twit character re-edited Winona Ryder‘s authentic, earnest videos of her friends? Paramount Vantage’s marketing push reminds me of that. I’m not saying it’s all evil or that Burstein and the kids are being taken for a ride. But it does strike me as a little desperate.
And it seems too early to judge the impact of the marketing blitz from this weekend’s box office — Teen made a respectable $8,600 per screen, totaling an estimated $43,000, according to Indiewire. But a far cry from Man on Wire, about Phillippe Petit, the 1970s World Trade Center wire walker, which made $24,000 per screen.