Television

Puff pieces or profiles?

The growing popularity of biographies sparks a heated debate among documentary filmmakers

Andrew Clark May 10 1999
Television

Puff pieces or profiles?

The growing popularity of biographies sparks a heated debate among documentary filmmakers

Andrew Clark May 10 1999

Puff pieces or profiles?

The growing popularity of biographies sparks a heated debate among documentary filmmakers

Television

Andrew Clark

The channels flick by in a steady stream. Talk show (click), news (click), sitcom (click), sports (click)—and then, a black-and-white baby picture appears. The flicking stops. The biographical documentary begins. The form is so worn and familiar that it is almost comforting, like an old friend stopping by for a visit. The subject was born in a small (or large) town. There is a happy childhood, or a troubled youth. Then success, followed by the inevitable fall from grace. A comeback, followed by an epiphany—fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Finish with him (or her) looking pensively towards some distant horizon.

Socrates said an unexamined life was not worth living. He could have had no idea how seriously television producers 24 centuries later would take his adage. Documentary profiles—from A&E’s Biography to the CBC’s Life & Times— are everywhere. There is no life, it appears, not worth examining. Curious about the story behind The Nanny s Fran Drescher? Not to worry, WTN’s Intimate Portraits is devoting an hour to her on May 28. The ubiquity of biographical profiles is a matter of considerable debate. To some industry experts, they are a means to transform documentary filmmaking, generally a moneylosing venture, into a viable economic endeavour. To others, formula-driven profiles are an embarrassing stain that soil every principle on which the art of documentary-making is based.

The dollar is driving the biographical documentary’s ascension. Reality no longer bites. Broadcasters who once avoided uttering the D-word now sali-

vate at the mention of “reality-based” programming. In 1992, the Canadian documentary community, then a small collection of renegade filmmakers, accounted for $23 million worth of production. In 1998, Canadians spent $80 million making documentaries. In its inaugural 1994 season, the film festival Hot Docs drew 140 entries, 150 delegates and 500 ticket buyers. This year’s five-day event, which opens in Toronto this week, boasts 400 entries, 1,000 delegates and an anticipated 10,000 filmgoers. TV ratings show the folks at home are likewise enamoured. A 1998 Neilsen Media Research study found that 85 per cent of American viewers watched at least one documentary during an average week. There has never been more demand. “If,” says SunKyung Yi, director of Thai Girls, a gripping look at Thai prostitutes working in Toronto, “you think a biography of Dolly Parton is a documentary.”

Many TV executives do. Since Biography's launch in 1989, it has profiled 700 personalities, won an Emmy Award and spawned legions of imitators. Series such as The ElNow Hollywood True Story and Intimate Portraits offer one-hour celebrity portraits on everyone from Julius Caesar to Kirk Douglas. In Canada, Life & Times has looked at everyone from Margaret Trudeau Kemper to June

Callwood to Glenn Gould since its 1996 première. Its Monday night time slot—up against the U.S. hit comedy Ally McBeal—draws a very respectable average of665,000 viewers weekly.

The current hunger for “factual” programming can be traced back to the creation of specialty channels, to which the CRTC granted licences in the early 1990s. Channels such as History Television and Discovery have an insatiable appetite for cheap programs they can repeat endlessly. A cunning producer can now craft a one-hour documentary for as little as $50,000 (the average budget is $140,000). That’s compared with the $850,000-plus it takes to churn out a one-hour drama.

In contrast, traditional auteur documentaries—in which the filmmaker discovers the story as the cameras roll— are a much harder sell. The problem with such exploratory pieces, according to Gerry Flahive, a producer with the National Film Board, is that “there is no formula.” But following a formula is what makes biographical profiles so attractive to TV networks. While the average independent documentary takes one to three years to complete, the typical Life & Times episode can be finished in just three months of full-time work, notes Sue Dando, senior producer for independent documentaries for the

CBC. And the formula is easy to follow. “With the cookie-cutter biography, you just fill in the blanks,” says Montreal filmmaker Peter Wintonick.

The trouble is, for every profile that hits a sublime note, there is another that is nothing more than a grandiose puff piece. Some filmmakers say this discredits the entire genre. “The documentary form has been corrupted,” says John Haslett Cuff, a former newspaper television critic-turned-filmmaker. “Viewers get used to so-called documentaries and they lose sight of the value of a real documentary, in which the idea is to look for a higher truth.”

The documentary community, in fact, is at odds over what effect this trend is having on independent production. To secure some of the ever-shrinking pool of public financing, filmmakers must get distribution, and to do that they must secure a broadcaster—who often will favour the security of the series format. Series, after all, are easier to promote than one-of-a-kind programs. “It’s like comparing a living forest to a tree farm,” says filmmaker Barry Greenwald, who spent two years mak-

ing High Risk Offender, his awardwinning examination of Canada’s parole system. “A farm is easier to cultivate, but a forest is a lot more interesting.” Those who make series documentaries argue that they are creating a broader appetite among viewers. Once the audience grows accustomed to TV biographies, the argument goes, they will advance to more experimental and creative fare. A&E has co-produced some critically lauded pieces, including The Farm, about the Arizona prison system, and

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, a Canadian co-production.

In fact, the biography formula is now so established that at times it can seem like a parody. VH 1 s Behind the Music plays the sex, drugs and redemption story line with unabashed relish. Remorseful rock stars come clean with lurid tales of excess, all the while camping it up for the camera. This weeks episode chronicles the life of’80s pop star Boy George. The opening voice-over is evidence that no maudlin detail will go unexploited: “He was the boy named George who looked like the girl next door. A gender-bender who used his quick wit and boyish charm to win over the world. But behind the music, he was a boy tortured by troubled love. Seduced by drugs and surrounded by death.”

Behind the Music is the No. 1-rated show of new cable channel MuchMoreMusic. Biography remains A&E’s flagship series and Life & Times is entering its fourth season—all evidence that the biographical series will remain a fixture on the TV landscape. “As soon as the 5.5 billionth biography has been made about every human on earth,” says Wintonick, “they’ll move on to fuzzy animals.” Andy Warhol once said that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. And, it now appears, profiled for another 60.