Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Competition docs are now their own genre- to stand out they must transcend their own conventions.
I have a confession to make – I take more than my fair share of guilty pleasure in numerous competition-based reality TV shows (TOP CHEF, PROJECT RUNWAY, THE AMAZING RACE, BIG BROTHER, etc etc) – they’re a fun, simple escape from thinking about the larger issues that I’m so often confronted with in many of the films that I watch. Of course, I appreciate lighter or non-issue-driven documentaries as well, but one thing that tends to strike me when I see competition-oriented docs is that they too easily fall into the conventions of reality TV. Maybe it’s a personal thing for me, based on my admitted escapist use of reality TV, but this results in a certain lack of full engagement with or appreciation for these kinds of documentaries.
There have been standout films in the competition doc subgenre, with SPELLBOUND being the best known – but that was back in 2002. There have been scores of competition docs since then, covering every conceivable type of activity, from drag beauty pageants to crossword puzzle contests. These kind of films are often crowd pleasers, and one of the reasons why they may be audience favorites is that they are so familiar. They often replicate what viewers have grown accustomed to seeing on TV. There’s nothing at all wrong with that – if it’s your intent to make audiences happy and comfortable, that’s great. At the same time, however, you run the risk of creating a veritable cookie cutter type of film, largely interchangeable with the last competition doc that an audience (or a programmer) has seen, just with a different contest as its focus.
One factor that i think helps to explain their popularity is that competition docs offer something that can be incredibly attractive for non-fiction filmmakers – an uncharacteristically clear sense of how to end a film, relative to a lot of other kinds of docs where deciding where to end might not be so easy. It might be tempting to take advantage of that built-in format that a competition offers, and follow its course from start to finish – that’s understandable, but keep in mind that you don’t need to be beholden entirely to this structure. Your film and its specific story can exist around the structure without needing to be constricted by it.
As I’ve cautioned in the past when writing about music or sports docs, the best of these are not simply about a particular band or athlete – instead they use the framework of a music tour or a boxing match to tell a larger story. They transcend the straightforward focus on their subject to reach something more universal. They can do this and still be entertaining and affecting. In many ways, competition docs are an offshoot of this – or should be, at least. I’m not suggesting that every competition necessarily intersects with some huge existential life issue, of course – you have to be realistic about what you have and don’t have as your story – but what I’m recommending is that you delve a little more deeply into the potential of your topic and of your subjects. Is the interesting thing the competition itself, or is it the people involved? Is there something that drives your protagonists with which your audiences can connect, through the lens of the contest in which they participate? Can you explore that core compulsion in a more focused way? I’m not saying to entirely lose sight of the competition, but instead to frame it in a different manner so that your audience might be as concerned about following contestants A & B to the finals as they are about understanding their reasons for participating in the first place. Audiences have lots of opportunities to watch a variety of contests on TV – in making a film about a specific one, you have the chance to go beyond the surface, should you choose, and, coming from a self-confessed reality TV fan, that would do a great deal to distinguish your project in a good way.