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     Theresa Howard  
Hollywood is entering the summer season, when big movies typically storm the U.S. box office starting with the Memorial Day holiday weekend, in a slump. Year to date, U.S. ticket sales are down 20% and even though Memorial Day weekend will likely bring a bump for the studios, the long term outlook is that Hollywood has lost its storytelling charm. And that’s creating an opportunity for the little guy: documentaries.

“Movies are still a viable form of entertainment but they’ve become blockbusters that cost $100 million to make,” says Tom Mangan, independent film producer and professor at NYU’s Tisch Asia School of the Arts. “The movie companies hedge their bets but people go to the movies to see an interesting story, not go on a roller coaster ride. That’s where documentaries come into play because they’re usually more interesting stories.”

Documentaries are having a banner year — at least in terms of production. While not typically big money makers there were a record 101 documentaries entered for consideration for this year’s Academy Award. And many of them have their own advocacy, political or cause angle. Among the titles: The Lottery and Waiting for ‘Superman” — two movies that chronicle the competition and hopes of getting children admitted into charter schools.

One of the most hyped films of the season, documentary or otherwise, has been The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock, who also directed the McDonald's Super Size Me. The film has grossed a little over $500,000 since its release in April, according to Box Office Mojo. The movie pokes fun at the movie industry’s penchant for product placement.

“Ultimately, storytelling saves the day,” says Brandon Gray, creator and president of Box Office Mojo. “The real issue is that Hollywood doesn’t pay attention to the product. They’re not giving it the respect they deserve.”

That lets others step up to tell stories the way they want to tell them – especially in our pervasive share all, tell all society. Thanks to YouTube, near-professional quality shooting and editing technology is found on even the smallest handheld device, while a collective urge by Joe and Jane Consumer to document their passions, political views and personal triumphs means anyone can be a documentary-maker.

“Technology is a great thing and it’s opened up movie-making,” says Gray. “It’s not a challenge to Hollywood mainstream. It just gives people choices.”

While documentaries may not be money-makers enough to cut into ticket sales (Hollywood seems to be taking care of that itself), they are offering movie fans more options. But like so many industries before it who responded slowly to the tide of shifting consumer sentiment (the record industry, advertising and even soft drinks), Hollywood seems bent on sticking to the money-making formula based on franchises rather than getting back to the art of storytelling. “The box office is going to go up wildly this weekend because of Hangover 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2,” says Mangan. “Of all the big movies this year, seven will be sequels.”

(For more on The Hangover 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2, don’t miss Abe Sauer’s Brandcameo look at product placement and branding in both sequels.)     



Theresa Howard runs the website The Press Republic. She has worked for both USA Today and Brandweek, covering anything and everything about branding.

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Hollywood Ending: Is the Reign of the Summer Blockbuster Over?
 The movies I hope to see this summer are all smaller films that will probably get limited distribution. I'm tired of every new film being a "marketed event." I'd just like to see a smartly directed, well-written STORY with good acting and a point of view. (Wishing too much?) 
Deborah Budd, web content editor, - June 8, 2011
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