A few Sundays ago, I found myself at a rather strange Oscar party. As one can imagine, here in Los Angeles, folks make a pretty big deal about the Oscars. Let’s be honest, people make a big deal about everything out here. If you order a sandwich and it doesn’t come with an avocado, it can create complete and utter panic. Call the authorities, shut down the streets, we have no avocado! Silly, but kinda true. The Oscars do create quite a stir. Maybe not at the level of the Super Bowl, but close.
Having had the good fortune of working with a few productions that were nominated, I was excited to watch. A friend of mine suggested I attend a party in his neighborhood. I grabbed a bottle of wine and made my way to what I thought would be like every other Oscar party I had ever attended. Constant critiquing of fashion choices and complaints about the length of the show were my memories. This year was different.
For starters, the host put more effort into this party than I think the Academy put into the Oscar broadcast. A red carpet greeted you from the driveway and went all the way to his front door. To copy the flashes of cameras from the media, he assembled enough lights to illuminate Dodger stadium. To their chagrin, he employed his children to take photos of all the invited guests. After entering the front door, we were greeted by a Mariachi band performing the songs nominated for Best Song. For food, he had commissioned a truck from In-N-Out Burger. I felt like I could never throw a party again after attending something on this scale.
With my food in tow, I found a comfortable seat in front of the television. The show was what I expected.Entertaining, but long. Jimmy Kimmel was charming and did his best to keep things light. Looking back on the telecast, two moments struck me. First, was how much I loved Sam Rockwell’s acceptance speech. He’s always been a kind of journeyman actor. Always exceptional in everything he does. He told an incredible story, about how as a young boy, he got called down to the principal’s office. When he arrived, he was surprised to see that his father was there. When he asked his dad what was going on, his father replied with concern, “It’s Grandma.” They made their way out to the car and exited the parking lot. Sam gave it a minute and then inquired as to what happened Grandma, his dad smiled, and said, “Nothing, figured I’d take you to the movies.”
A bit twisted, no question, but it was endearing in that it propelled his love of movies.The second moment was when they announced the winner for Best Documentary. Working with documentaries day in and day out, I was certainly interested in the outcome. The winner was Icarus. Icarus is the story of a filmmaker who set out to uncover the truth about doping in sports, but after a chance meeting with a Russian scientist, the story transforms into a geopolitical thriller, which exposes the biggest scandal in sports history. A group of four men walked on stage and the joy in their faces was infectious. They explained how long of a journey the film was and the sacrifices that were made. They showed sincere concern for the unnamed sources who literally risked their lives to help them reveal the scandal. They were gracious and moving.
As they left the stage, I was shocked that most of my fellow party guests had seen the documentary and were clearly big fans. What compounded my bewilderment was that many of my fellow partygoers had admitted they hadn’t seen most of the films nominated that evening.Really? To have seen Icarus, but not The Post? A story about Russian athletes cheating rather than Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep? Who hasn’t seen every Steven Spielberg film? What was going on here?
As the show cut to commercial, I headed to the kitchen. As soon as I arrived, I was greeted with a heated conversation. Initially, I thought the guests were arguing, and I must admit I was intrigued. I soon realized it wasn’t a disagreement at all, far from it; they were in complete agreement. They were just passionate about something they saw on Netflix. They were discussing the new docuseries Dirty Money. They were fired up about an episode detailing the actions of a drug company called Valiant who purchased small drug companies and then raised the prices of drugs in some cases to 300 percent, making them the darling of Wall Street. I remembered we had sold some content to that series and I joined the conversation. It went on for a solid ten minutes. More and more folks joined, and we ended up missing a good portion of the broadcast. To be honest, I think I even forgot it was on.
I am certainly aware that documentaries have become more and more popular. The last two years at Wazee Digital are evidence of such a claim as our documentary business has increased over 40 percent. Now, there are a few obvious factors at play: There are more companies distributing content, thus there is a greater need for content; documentaries traditionally, unless your name is Michael Moore or Alex Gibney, are far less expensive to make than fictional works; programs like Making a Murderer certainly struck a nerve with people. It became a “water-cooler” series. No, it wasn’t Seinfeld, but the interest was remarkable. Everyone was suddenly a forensic expert. There is no doubt people jumped at the chance to find or create the next Making a Murderer, but I would argue a project like that was an outlier. That was lightning in a bottle. What was going on with documentaries started before that show and was sustainable. It was bigger than Making a Murderer.
My two cents? The appetite of audiences has changed. Big budget films will always attract endless crowds. They will always generate truckloads of revenue; however, the success of these films has in some cases hurt the creation of less expensive, character-driven projects. This creates a void; something that we can relate to as an audience. Our society has become incredibly fragmented. We love our social media, but it’s had a ripple effect of us becoming less social. Rather than have a conversation, we text or tweet. So, what do you do if you want to relate to someone or something?Maybe you look to a form of entertainment. Does the latest “the world is coming to an end,” big budget film fill that void? It seems like folks are looking elsewhere. Many, not all, but many are choosing reality over fantasy.
So how does Wazee Digital fit into all of this? I am proud of the work we have done with all kinds of projects. I love that we work on great shows like VEEP, Ray Donovan, and This is Us. The documentaries though, bring a unique kind of satisfaction. We tend to work with them from the beginning to end of the production cycle – from research to marketing. Through our amazing partnerships with organizations like CBS News, the content we represent can, in many cases, drive their narratives. I would argue these compelling news moments also play a key role in the increased interest in documentaries. I can site many amazing scenes from fictional works that hold a special place with me, but I’m not sure any can rival the power of a student blocking a tank in Tiananmen Square or Walter Cronkite announcing the death of President Kennedy. These moments are etched in our minds and could never be recreated. I take comfort in knowing our news partners will continue to capture these moments and I am excited to see how documentarians will feature these moments to tell us their stories.
So, the party ended with everyone trying to figure out what in the hell Shape of Water was about. I was in a pretty fantastic food coma from my third In-N-Out Burger, so I said my goodbyes and made my way home. When I got home, I received a text from my sister. She had just watched a documentary called Dear Zachary. She demanded I watch it as soon as humanly possible. I replied that I had already seen it. She called me immediately. We talked for over twenty minutes. Yes, something is definitely going on here …