Oprah and OWN give documentaries a lift at Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah Sun Jan 23, 2011 12:58pm EST

The logo of the OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network is pictured at a cocktail reception for the Television Critics Association 2011 Winter press tour in Pasadena, California, January 6, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

The logo of the OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network is pictured at a cocktail reception for the Television Critics Association 2011 Winter press tour in Pasadena, California, January 6, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser

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PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - Media mogul Oprah Winfrey vowed to bring documentary movies into homes across the United States on her new OWN television network in an effort she likened to her hugely successful book club.

At a Saturday launch party at the Sundance Film Festival, which has long championed documentary movies, Winfrey told a delighted crowd that outspoken celebrity Rosie O'Donnell will be OWN's "curator" of non-fiction films. O'Donnell will host specials in which the films' makers and subjects are featured when the OWN Documentary Film Club launches this spring.

"It is my intention to do for documentaries what we have been able to do for books," Winfrey said. "My goal, my dream, my intention is to bring documentaries into the mainstream, to have them stimulate new ways of thinking."

Non-fiction films have long been the stepchildren to their far more popular siblings, narrative feature films, and it is rare when a documentary gets the necessary marketing and promotion to bring in big bucks at box offices.

Only 12 have broken the $10 million mark in movie theaters, according to industry tracker Boxofficemojo.com. Last year's highly-praised educational documentary "Waiting for Superman," which premiered at Sundance, has taken in only $6.7 million.

Most documentaries end up airing on TV, but outlets that air them in that medium are limited to only a few -- most prominently subscriber-based cable TV network HBO.

In her book club, launched on her daytime talk program "The Oprah Winfrey Show" during the mid-1990s, Winfrey would pick a title, audiences would read it, and then she would host shows to discuss the books with authors and experts.

The effort, which generated a few controversies among its selections, nevertheless kept her millions of fans tuned-in and made many of the chosen titles instant bestsellers.

WELCOME BOOST FOR "DOCS"

So, documentary makers are welcoming OWN's entry into the documentary marketplace with open arms and big smiles.

Fenton Bailey, who with his filmmaking partner Randy Barbato made the highly-praised "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," said when he first heard of OWN's plans, it was "like Christmas." His and Barbato's new "Becoming Chaz," about the sex change of Chaz Bono, was OWN's first acquisition.

"Super Size Me" maker Morgan Spurlock said Oprah has the power and influence to lure large audiences to the medium and that, if successful, he hopes it will spread.

"What you also hope is that other networks will say, 'we should be doing the same thing'," Spurlock told Reuters. His new "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," about product placement in the media, will soon hit movie theaters from distributor Sony Pictures Classics.

Oprah's vision through OWN is to champion documentaries by either acquiring the right to movies that already have been made or to fund their production through the network. OWN would then lure audiences via promotion.

Already, directors Forrest Whitaker and Barbara Kopple have begun working on documentaries for OWN. Other of the network's titles being promoted at Sundance include "Family Affair," "No Woman, No Cry," "One Lucky Elephant" and "Louder Than a Bomb."

(Reporting by Bob Tourtellotte, editing by Anthony Boadle)

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