Can Michael Moore Save Documentaries?

Doc filmmakers hope so! Last month at the International Documentary Association’s annual Oscar celebration, Michael Moore called for “Doc Night in America,” which would ask major theater chains to dedicate one screen, one night a week, to nonfiction film. While the proposal remains in its nascent stages, it has already spurred talk, both positive and negative, within the documentary community, according to Indie Wire. Of course, distributors are giving the plan a thumbs down. “A movie is a movie. If you don’t do musical night or western night, why would you do documentary night?” responded Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm’s theatrical distribution unit. But 51 Birch Street doc director Doug Block said, “I think any initiative that tries to do something about the hellhole of documentary distribution is better than sitting back and whining.” More from directors and distributors after the jump.

Other filmmakers welcome the potential of such a program to garner much-needed press. “A Walk into the Sea” director Esther Robinson noted that if her film were able to play 35 cities on a single night, “we would have a shot at a kind of national coverage that would be really interesting,” she said. “If it could then go on to be booked for longer runs, it could function to focus national attention and then build on that attention where appropriate.”

AJ Schnack, director of “Kurt Cobain About a Son” and a prolific doc blogger (, likes the “notion that they are going to help you connect with local papers, press, radio, etc.,” he said, “essentially building a kind of underground network not unlike indie musicians did in the 1980s, which is something I’ve been advocating for a while.”

Distributors, however, are highly doubtful that such an effort can succeed without a major and expensive marketing push. “Non-fiction films will play on more (multiplex) screens as soon as someone spends as much (obscenely high) marketing money to take them to market as Warners does for each ‘Harry Potter’ film,” wrote veteran distributor and filmmaker Jeff Lipsky, who currently runs SenArt’s distribution efforts. They released the “The War Tapes” last year. “It’s, unfortunately, all about marketing dollars, not about ‘Harry Potter’ playing on too many screens,” added Lipsky, referring directly to Moore’s argument that one of the several screens that a “Harry Potter” occupies on a weekday night could go to his documentary nights.