In a world where shows like American Idol, The Apprentice, and Survivor regularly win the TV ratings game, the increased public appetite for documentary films should come as no surprise. Just last week, Entertainment Weekly reported that Touching the Void (2003) had broken into list of the top ten grossing documentaries of all time. Based on opening box office reports and terrific word of mouth, Morgan Spurlock’s Super-Size Me (2004) seems poised to join it, and there’s always the possibility that Michael Moore’s already-controversial Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) could trump the $22 million gross that made the filmmaker’s previous effort, Bowling for Columbine (2002), the highest-grossing documentary of all time.

Not only have these films been prospering financially, but they have also been garnering the type of critical attention that has often eluded them in the past. Abbas Kiarostami’s 10 on Ten (2004) and Jonathan Nossiter’s Mondovino (2004) join Fahrenheit 9/11 in competition for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, while Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2004), made with an initial budget of $218.32 (approximately £125), drew a ten-minute standing ovation when it screened as part of the Director’s Fortnight.

However, as documentaries grow more successful and find a greater space within the public consciousness, there remain a number of unresolved issues facing their filmmakers. On Saturday, May 8, the Tribeca Film Festival gathered a panel of insiders to discuss this changing landscape, most notably the perceived financial success of the genre and ethical issues such as whether or not a film’s subject should be compensated for his or her participation.

In light of the recent lawsuit waged by Georges Lopez, the rural schoolteacher featured in the hit French documentary Être et Avoir (2002), against filmmaker Nicolas Philbert, the latter issue seemed timely. While Lopez is demanding 250,000 euros on the grounds that the film was partially his creation, Philbert has famously asserted that, ‘one of the founding principles of documentary filmmaking is to not install relationships of subordination. If you start paying people in documentaries, they become your employees.’

While this specific incident was never broached by the panel, the issue remained in the air. Peter Gilbert, producer and cinematographer for Hoop Dreams (1994) and director of With All Deliberate Speed (2004), an upcoming documentary about the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, disclosed that he and Hoop Dreams director Steve James felt obligated to give the families depicted in the films an equal share of the profits. Not only had the directors forged a close relationship with them (filming took place for over seven years), but they also felt that withholding profits would be exploitative given the dire economic situations faced by many family members. Gilbert acknowledged, however, that this case was extraordinary, not only because Hoop Dreams was wildly successful, but also because few filmmakers commit to spending such an extensive amount of time with their subjects.

Panelist Daniel Anker, the producer and co-director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (2000), and Edet Belzberg, director of the Oscar-nominated Children Underground (2000) and the upcoming Gymnast, recalled painful decisions where they were forced to omit key participants from their films because they refused to be filmed without receiving financial compensation.

Spellbound (2002) producer Sean Welch initially found himself in a similar bind with one of the families featured in his film, but was ultimately able to convince them to appear in the movie without being paid. Although this situation worked out for the best, Welch admitted that if he and director Jeff Blitz had had unlimited financial resources to tap into, they might have considered paying the family on the grounds that their participation helped make it a better film.

The discussion, moderated by Caroline Kaplan of IFC Entertainment, then turned to the film industry’s reaction to the growing commercial success of the genre. Mark Urman, head of THINKfilm’s U.S. theatrical division [which released Spellbound, Bus 174 (2002), and The Agronomist (2004]), pointed out that the $6 million grossed by Spellbound was probably about as much as ‘Van Helsing (2004) made before lunch yesterday,’ but nevertheless predicted that box office records for documentary films would continue to be shattered with increasing frequency. Urman also remarked that ‘documentaries are the most exciting films I’m seeing [and] the most interesting films I’m seeing.’ From a marketing perspective, they are also relatively inexpensive, as many come with what he described as ‘built-in media hooks.’ As an example, he cited the Sundance hit Super-Size Me, which has drawn volumes of free press coverage for its outrageous exposé of McDonald’s fast food. Still, for every Bowling for Columbine, there are several less-heralded films that fail to do good business.

Still, with the explosion of affordable equipment and technology (Tarnation, for example, was edited on Apple’s iMovie software), documentaries make an increasingly safe financial bet for studios and filmmakers alike. Urman cited the case of Bus 174, which despite garnering rave reviews only earned roughly $200,000 at the box office. Although this number may appear dismal on the surface, THINKfilm somehow managed to eke a small profit from it.

Whether this current fixation on documentaries is a passing fad or the shape of things to come remains to be seen, but with festivals like Sundance and Cannes continuing to place heavy emphasis on the genre and mini-blockbusters such as Capturing the Friedmans (2003) and Winged Migration (2001) putting dollar signs in the eyes of potential distributors, these films look like they’re here to stay.