32 Sounds Interview: Sam Green on Surviving the Documentary Market

How did an $800,000 documentary survive the recession when faced with so many small non-fiction works? Let Sam Green explain.

A few years ago, “true crime” became a marketable trope, and the documentary market has been in slow-motion decline ever since. Millions invested in non-fiction by streamers overinflated expectations of the form, stretched it thin, and the bubble burst earlier this year. Few documentaries generated much buyer interest at Sundance in January. In this column, I suggested that filmmakers would be best served by destroying the word “documentary” to avoid outright rejection.

Sam Green took a more pragmatic approach. His delightful, immersive essay film “32 Sounds,” which premieres this week at the New York Film Forum more than a year after its live performance at Sundance’s virtual 2022 edition, has a malleable form and modest scale that allows it to get by without the movie. unreasonable expectations of success. The project’s long-term viability provides a valuable case study of how unconventional, smaller-scale non-fiction filmmaking can remain sustainable. Staying small and foreign is one way to stay safe.

For the uninitiated, Green’s work straddles the line between cinema, music and performance art. Since 2010’s “Utopia in Four Movements,” Green has worked around the concept of a “living documentary” while providing a lovely vocal presence in front of the screen, usually accompanied by musicians. He collaborated with Yo La Tango on “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller” in 2013; “32 Sounds” sees him reunite with composer JD Sampson and builds on their previous work on their 2021 shorter “7 Sounds” (designed to be heard on an iPhone via headphones, preferably outside).

His latest work takes the form of a free-flowing, metaphysical exploration of audio experiences, from the artificial sounds of a tree falling in the forest (ha!) to a bird chirping for its extinct companion, but Green weaves his collage together with skillful recording. on the modern history of listening to the world.

“As a filmmaker, how can you work in a world full of images? I had to deal with that,” Green said this week via Zoom. “Individually, they are all confused, confused and alienated. The film is an examination of this idea – alienation, media overload, the human condition.”

The first time I watched “32 Sounds” on my computer during virtual Sundance, it was an engaging interactive experience. The binaural mix required the use of headphones and gave a home theater experience in which no nuance of the work was lost. But now, after some 50 live shows across the country, Green has brought something new to his home-grown form by partnering with theatrical distributor Abramorama to produce a recorded version of “32 Sounds” for release at the Film Forum (a VOD opening is just around the corner). Film Forum audiences are provided with headphones when they attend, making this site-specific documentary an event-like experience even without the live component.

It’s a joy to witness a work that can change over time and succeed in multiple forms of distribution, rather than struggle to find the best home and slip through the cracks. Filmmakers are often derided for considering distribution strategies during development, but Green does so as an extension of his creative process.

A still from 7 Pounds by Sam Green, an official selection of the New Frontier program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.  Courtesy of Sundance Institute Photographs must be credited to the photographer and/or “Courtesy of Sundance Institute”.  Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photographs is strictly prohibited.

“32 Voices” by Sam Green


“If you’re a filmmaker now, you have to be skilled and able to work with different iterations of cinema,” he said. “If you’re not sharp, versatile and trying new things, you’re dead. Or you teach.” He laughed. “I’ve never gotten any funding from Netflix or anything like that, so I’m just business as usual. My projects are still hard to pitch. My next project is a documentary about trees. I’m not going to go to a pitch forum and sell it. I was grateful , that so far I have not depended on this part of the documentary world.”

On the other hand, it is an indirect beneficiary of the initial documentary boom. Green made “32 Sounds” for about $800,000, with a mix of grants and equity, much of which came from Impact Partners, the same company behind the Netflix miniseries “Harry and Meghan.” However, he also drew on resources beyond the film industry, including a live media residency at MASS MoCA, which allowed him to workshop the live version.

“The movie world is capitalism,” Green said. “The performing arts world is still some kind of socialist model. These shows don’t always have to break even in ticket sales. It helps me live in an economy like this.”

This flexibility allowed him to improvise when new opportunities arose at work. After Green performed “32 Sounds” live at BAM last year, outgoing Film Forum director Karen Cooper approached her about a recorded version and put her in touch with Oscar-winning sound designer Mark Mangini (“Mad Max: Fury Road”). a new 7-on: 1 mix.

“A lot of the magic of the film is the spatial element, so it was difficult to figure out how to translate that to a 7:1 mix, but in some ways it was better,” Green said.

By being a headphone-only experience, “32 Sounds” has a much longer lifeline than his previous efforts. “It’s the only way to make a documentary about sound that can be shown in all kinds of theaters, many of which are ugly,” Green said. “This ensures that everyone has the same sound experience. This is the epitome of the artist who controls the audience experience.”

My favorite sequence in “32 Sounds” is the dance break, when Green and Sampson essentially turn up the volume and encourage the crowd to get up and party. When I watched the film in Sundance’s 3D Virtual Cinema, many viewers moved their virtual avatars around the room and made them jump to simulate the right mood. Still, I suspected at the time that the IRL crowds would come down a lot harder. “I’ve noticed during the live shows that people get really into it,” Green said. “I think everyone is tired of Netflix. That cheers me up.”

Green’s work may seem too parochial and eccentric for any specific business takeaway, but I’d argue the opposite: instructive because niche and eccentric, it proves that working on the margins and questioning the boundaries of the medium can result in more innovative ways of bringing art to the world. In this respect, “32 Sounds” deserves to be heard in more ways than one.

As always, I look forward to your feedback in the weekly column: [email protected]

Browse past details of this column here.

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