Talking Rock Docs, a 'Niche Business' with 'Great Passion', at the Film & TV Music Conference
Talking Rock Docs, a 'Niche Business' with 'Great Passion', at the Film & TV Music Conference

(L-R): Stephen Kessler, Director, "Paul Williams Still Alive", Robin Klein, Film Producer, "Charlie Is My Darling", Evan Saxon, Partner, D&E Entertainment, Morgan Neville, Documentary Filmmaker/Producer, Glen Zipper, Head of Documentary Features, Exclusive Media's Spitfire Pictures, David Leaf, Write/Producer/Director, "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" (Photo: Arnold Turner)

Producing rock documentaries "is a niche business, but it's a niche business with a great passion," declared David Leaf, creator of the film "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" and moderator of Billboard's 11th annual Film & TV Music Conference panel "Rock Docs Roll: Documentaries on the Rebound."

The "Rebound" part of the title may represent a bit of wishful thinking, as the panelists agreed that it's still devilishly difficult to get a rock documentary made, particularly given how pricy it is to license music for them. Morgan Neville, producer of "Pearl Jam Twenty" and director of "Johnny Cash's America" among many others, says "It has become more difficult" to make the films, even given the "patchwork financing" he relies upon. PBS and the BBC are reliable sources for money, if less generous than in the past, and "The DVD market has collapsed, and A&E and Bravo no longer make documentaries."

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Filmmakers must have a passion for their subjects, said Glen Zipper, who worked on Martin Scorsese's "George Harrison: Living in the Material World" and produced "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth" and won an Oscar for the football doc "Undefeated." "If you don't have that religion, you won't go on the crusade to make a documentary." Funding for a film depends on the question "Are they generally in the Zeitgeist?" he explained, adding that an artist's penetration in social media is a consideration.

(L-R): Glen Zipper, Morgan Neville, Evan Saxon (Photo: Arnold Turner)

But even Facebook adulation is no guarantee. Evan Saxon, a D&E Entertainment partner who released "Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage," declared, "If two percent of an artist's Facebook fans buy tickets to your movie, you're doing pretty well."

While superstar acts and "passion projects" about obscure artists with unconventional backstories (such as the recent "Searching for Sugar Man") can get made, Neville opined that "stories about midlist artists can't get made. One of my frustrations" is that he can't find funding for a film about the Minneapolis punk band the Replacements.

Several on the panel agreed that a dream project would be a documentary about David Bowie. Zipper wondered aloud, "When is David going to be ready - if ever - to tell his story?" Which is no doubt a question many of his fans are asking, too.