Less is More for Doc Films

One of my favorite documentaries of 2015 is HBO’s San Francisco 2.0 from filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi.  The film looks at the current dominance of the tech industry in San Francisco and how all these well-paid millennials are impacting the culture and life in the city.  One big plus to this well-paced, insightful film is that it clocks in at 40 minutes. 

Pelosi nailed her points clearly, included just the right numbers of experts, and did not feel the need to pad the project.  In the hands of a less experienced filmmaker, this same topic could have been twice as long and much less effective.  Less can be more compelling.

I have helped promote social issues docs for most of my career.  For the first five years of my life as a publicist, all the films I worked on were docs that tackled major social issues – human rights, the nuclear arms race, AIDS, the environment -  and nearly all of them were too long.

Traditionally, to be taken seriously as a feature film by critics, the Motion Picture Academy and potential distributors, doc filmmakers felt their films had to be at least 90 minutes with some being much longer. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is slightly shy of two hours, Sicko is just over two hours, as is his new 2016 film, Where to Invade Next.

For Oscar purposes, the Academy rules define documentaries over 45 minutes as being feature-length, yet films under an hour would have a hard time finding a theatrical distributor or being taken seriously by the documentary branch of the Academy.  But the game is changing.  There are other ways to get a film seen, outside the conventional theatrical setting, and frankly, many films are highly unlikely to garner nominations or make the 15-film short list.

Many films simply do not have the content for 90+ minutes, so filmmakers stretch out the story line, add more talking heads, let some scenes go on too long, and make the same point repeatedly.  I feel like yelling at the screen – “Enough already!!!”  I get that coal is bad for the environment and our health. 

The time rules are changing, especially with the advent of original programming on Netflix and Amazon.  On the web, a program doesn’t have to fit into a pre-set time constraint.  I noticed this with the recent Aziz Ansari’s original Netflix series, Master of None.   Some episodes are 26 minutes, while another one is 33 minutes. 

Many good docs are less than 90 minutes.  To me, 90 should be the maximum length.  It actually much harder to make a shorter, tighter film, than a longer one where the filmmaker can’t bear to cut any interviews or shorten any scene.  A film that is padded will suffer at the box office.  If the buzz for a doc is some variation of “Powerful film, but just too long,” – you will lose a large part of your potential audience.  When I hear a film is too long, I don’t go to the theater.  I will just wait for that situation, remote in hand, where I can fast forward and turn that 2-hour film into 50 minutes. 

As some film writers have noted, this is the best of times and the worst of times for documentary films.  There are more being made, many new venues for viewing them, but theatrically most docs fail at the box office.  Filmmakers are now realizing that rather than trying to pull audience members to a theater, they should go where the viewers are – Video on Demand, Netflix, and so on.  And for those platforms, less is always more workable. especially in the new age of very short attention spans.