Silverdocs is dead. Long live, uh, AFI Docs presented by Audi?
Say what? The acclaimed local documentary film festival and industry confab announced that it is changing its name and adjusting its focus, adding venues inside the District line and cutting a few days from its schedule.
Did nobody at AFI see Morgan Spurlock’s cheeky doc, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold? Which shines a bright and damning light on the world of corporate sponsorship, product placement, and movie marketing—and is itself a much better title than AFI Docs presented by Audi. The AFI’s press release feels the need to point out right away that “[t]he official festival name is ‘AFI Docs presented by Audi’ and should be referred to as such at least once within a story.”
It’s understandable that the American Film Institute, AFI, wants more blatant branding. But tossing out a decade of recognizable branding and good will, along with the much more mellifluous name Silverdocs, seems like brandicide—which is a word I just made up and am now trademarking for all my future branding needs: Brandicide®.
Even without Audi’s moniker attached like a corporate remora fish, “AFI Docs” just doesn’t roll off the tongue and is simply bland. The “silver” in Silverdocs could be read as an homage to silver nitrate film stock, but more directly to the AFI’s beautifully-restored Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, as well as Silver Spring, where all the action takes place.
Or did. Now much of that action will occur at the Newseum, the National Portrait Gallery, and other D.C. venues. Irritatingly, much of the coverage has pitched the story as the festival “expanding into D.C.”—as if a retail chain from the Midwest were opening a new branch. Indiewire got it completely wrong with the headline, “AFI Announces Expansion of Documentary Fest AFI Docs Into DC Area.” Note to everyone: Silver Spring is already in “the DC area.” From under the marquee of the Silver Theatre it’s a fairly short walk down Colesville Road to the District line, or a slightly longer but totally manageable stroll up Georgia Avenue and into George Pelecanos novel territory.
I call this cosmopolitan provincialism, the notion that hipsters seem to have that anything that occurs beyond their particular sphere of coolness—Columbia Heights, Penn Quarter, NOMA—is literally beyond the pale. My pal and Washington City Paper colleague Mark Jenkins once bemoaned in a review that walking from the Silver Spring Metro to the Silver Theater was some kind of burden. In fact, it’s one block from the station, a walk that takes you past the beautiful, LEED-certified Discovery building. It is slightly uphill, but you can see the theater marquee when you step off the train, so the trek shouldn’t seem too hopeless. Note to cosmopolitan provincialists: it’s a quicker walk to the Silver Theatre from the Silver Spring Metro than it will be from any Metro station to the Newseum, where the AFI Docs conferences will now be held.
Or the Catalyst Sessions, the new name for what used to be the fairly traditional though always interesting and helpful industry conferences and symposiums of past festivals. Sounds like organizers may be going for something more TED-like. Which might be cool. Or, like many latter-day TED Talks, insufferable. I’ll wait and see.
Why this extreme makeover is happening was hinted at in Ann Hornaday’s Washington Post story. Discovery Networks, the original co-founder and major funder of Silverdocs, wanted out. As Hornaday put it, “shifts in Discovery’s corporate focus…resulted in a decline in the channel’s support in recent years.” Discovery began as an outlet for documentaries and science-based programming—largely from Australia, as I remember from those early days when cable TV was new and exciting and you’d watch anything, including documentaries from Australia.
But the network has long since traded uplift for downright degradation, with cheap tabloid “reality” fare such as Amish Mafia and Moonshiners. And Discovery’s hideous offspring, TLC (where, please recall, the L used to stand for “Learning”) is given over to even more soul-destroying shows such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and various hoarder-exploitation series. That’s corporate focus.
Standing in the dizzying multi-story atrium of the Discovery building at the opening night party for the 2008 fest, I was surprised to learn from a Discovery employee that the cable network lost money on Silverdocs. How can you lose money, I thought. This place is jammed, and jamming. The opening night film that year was More Than a Game, featuring LeBron James. Who showed up, briefly, I’m told. Money didn’t seem to matter back then. Towering ice sculptures built to dispense fancy vodka drinks (still have the battery-powered light-up martini glass), a special Stella Atois bar as cool as in the commercials, and outside in the lush courtyard, DJs pumping out the beats late into the night—good times.
But the parties became quieter and last year there was no opening gala to speak of.
And what of Silver Spring? Despite the happy spin of the press release, this move is a loss for the community.
Yes, I complain because I’m something of a provincialist myself. I like that I could walk to Silverdocs. But I also complain because I love the festival and want it to succeed.
My relationship with Silverdocs goes back to its beginning. City Paper was one of the first sponsors and, in addition to a free pass to all the swell parties and a cool logo-imprinted messenger bag, I was honored to introduce a film one year. In 2008, as an independent writer, I blogged the hell out of the program. For the last few years (though not this year), I was a volunteer screener, watching as many as 40 films each spring and offering comments and recommendations to the review board. Silverdocs receives upwards of 5,000 entries, each hoping for one of the hundred or so spots, so this work was essential. I saw a lot of junk but also a lot of great films. It’s a testament to the quality of Silverdocs that only a few of the films I recommended actually made it into the program.
So Audi drives to the rescue, for now. But when car sales slip or “corporate focus” changes, then what? AFI Docs presented by Jiffy Lube? AFI Docs presented by Google Street View? AFI Docs presented by the Law Firm of Ashcraft & Gerel?
Well, I still have my Silverdocs messenger bag.