When it comes to documentary filmmakers, Alex Gibney, Errol Morris and Raoul Peck are at the top of their game. Along with tremendous talent, each helmer possesses what every successful documentarian needs — business savvy — which in turn has allowed them to experience continued success over many years. The trio also has what most documentarians desire — clout and final cut.
But despite their respective success and power, Gibney, Morris and Peck agree that the film festivals where they first found success are still as important to their respective careers as ever before.
This year, Gibney’s “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon,” Morris’ “The Pigeon Tunnel” and Peck’s “Silver Dollar Road” will all screen at TIFF.
“The celebratory nature of festivals is awesome,” says Gibney. “It’s one of the reasons you make movies.”
Gibney spent three years making “In Restless Dreams,” a 209-minute film about Simon’s six-decade career and the making of his new album, “Seven Psalms.” The director has worked with every major platform on multiple occasions, and most likely could have found a distributor for the doc prior to TIFF, but ultimately decided to wait and sell the film out of the festival in spite of the dismal marketplace for documentary films.
“We felt confident that [the project] would find a home when we got to the moment where we needed to and wanted to sell it,” says Gibney.
“Coming out of COVID, the question is, who is going to the festivals?,” he says. “Are people going to go to the festivals? I hope they do, and I hope buyers go. But it remains to be seen how festivals are going to work in the future as a market.”
Apple TV+ will distribute Morris’ “The Pigeon Tunnel,” a portrait of the spy-turned-novelist David Cornwell, better known as, John le Carré, the author of classic espionage novels including “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Constant Gardener.” The doc made its world premiere earlier this month at the Telluride Film Festival.
“Festivals are really important,” says Morris. “Maybe less important to Apple than they are to me, but for me they have been invaluable throughout my career. So many of my films have premiered at one festival or another, whether it was Sundance, Venice, Berlin or New York. My first film, ‘Gates of Heaven,’ was accepted by the New York Film Festival [in 1978]. The only problem was that the newspapers were on strike that year so no one reviewed the movie out of the festival. But I was very lucky because two Chicago critics picked up on it — Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. They championed the movie and reviewed it some three or four times within a year.”
The rocky landscape for documentaries has made the competition fierce for a slot at top-tier festivals like TIFF. Increasingly, festivals have become the only place where many docs made by new and experienced directors will screen, thus making the presence of docs commissioned by conglomerates a thorny subject.
“Errol and Raoul are great filmmakers, and every festival wants to have a mix of the greatest and also the up and comers,” says Gibney. “And every festival should have that mix.”
Morris adds, “It’s a crazy business. We all know this. Apple paid for my film and I’m glad that they are interested in distributing it and it can be seen by a wider audience. But any place where you have a venue and an opportunity to have your film seen by a wider audience and reviewed is a good thing.”
Peck agrees. The director worked with Amazon to make “Silver Dollar Road,” about a Black family in North Carolina who have battled decades of harassment by land developers trying to seize their waterfront property.
“Festivals nowadays are more important than ever,” Peck says. “I try to explain to the younger generation that if you are lucky enough that your first or second film is bought by one of the platforms, yes, you will make money, but what you might miss is the whole experience of going to a festival. That is where you meet film critics, producers, your colleagues, festival directors, etc. And those are the people who will accompany you all your professional life. Those are the people that will educate you further to help you become a better filmmaker.”