roller derby documentaries and how Derbyverse came to be

A roller derby photographer from Toronto asked me to write a review of a film called “Derby, Baby!” But what came out was an article about roller derby documentaries in general, why a lot of filmmakers are wasting their time making docs that won’t earn any money, and where my online interview show Derbyverse came from. I liked the article so much I’m posting it here to share with my friends.

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In 2009, the modern resurgence of women’s roller derby made it to the mainstream in the form of Drew Barrymore’s film “Whip It.” Thousands of girls and women saw the film and rushed out to buy roller skates and try roller derby for themselves. Now, over three years later, it’s the only significant dramatic motion picture about the modern version of the sport. But there have been several documentary films about the sport, some good and some bad.

I’m a movie buff, a film maker, and a roller derby fan. To me, the two best documentaries about modern roller derby are “Derby, Baby!” and “Brutal Beauty.” Technically, they are the only ones that look, sound, and feel like a real big-screen movie. And they both work well from a storytelling perspective.

“Brutal Beauty” came out in 2010. It was directed by Chip Mabry, and looks into Portland’s Rose City Rollers over the course of about a year and a half. It showed in some indie film festivals, but never was picked up for any significant distribution. It’s now available for rental on Netflix. “Derby, Baby!” came out in 2012, with a much wider scope to show a lot of different leagues and people involved in the sport. The filmmakers took an unusual distribution route with this one; they teamed up with individual roller derby leagues to host screenings around the world and split the proceeds. Eventually it will be available on DVD and, I think, Blu-ray.

In addition to these films, there are several other roller derby documentaries, with probably a dozen more in some stage of production. Most of these films suffer from the same weakness. Some guy with a camera becomes a fan of roller derby, starts following his local hometown team, and then decides to make a documentary about them. I’ve personally met about six filmmakers who are trying to work on different films of this type, which means there are probably more than twice that many.

The fatal flaw of this type of film is that the market is almost non-existent. That’s because of two things. First, any film that’s about specific players making their way up the ladder – as many roller derby documentaries are – has a limited lifespan. The average career of a roller derby skater is only about three years. So by the time the film is finished being shot, and then edited, and then sold, and then shown in theaters, most of the people who are in the film aren’t even involved in roller derby anymore. And because the sport is changing so fast right now, the best you can get is an unsatisfying snapshot of what it used to be like a few years ago. The second – and much bigger – reason there’s no market for this type of film is that only the fans of a local team are really interested in a documentary of that local team. As much as the guy with the camera thinks his local team is unique and exciting and interesting, nobody in Atlanta wants to watch a documentary about a roller derby team in Vancouver.

This brings up a bigger issue that I should back up and explain. There is not a significant audience for roller derby documentaries of any kind – even the really good ones. First, in most of the world, there really isn’t much of a market for documentaries of any kind. In addition, even though derby is the fastest-growing women’s sport in the world (so I’ve read), it is played by only around 10,000 skaters worldwide, and watched by an audience of probably 50,000 to 100,000 real fans. That’s about 1/50 the size of lacrosse. And how many lacrosse documentaries have you and your family seen at the local cinema this year?

I’ve given a lot of thought to this issue because I used to be one of those dozens of filmmakers working on a roller derby documentary. I even had a pretty unique angle that most of the derby films never took. Instead of focusing on my hometown league, I was looking at the roller derby community as it varies around the country (the USA, which is where I live). I wasn’t so much interested in the history of the sport, or roller derby rules and strategy, or how my hometown league came to be. What excites me is the unique culture that’s grown up around the modern version of the sport.

I canceled that film project about halfway through production. But from the ashes of that film came something new and unique, a weekly online video series. It’s called Derbyverse, and each 6-to-10 minute episode focuses on a single person involved in modern roller derby. Most of the episodes are about skaters, but it’s not just famous players whose names are known to everyone in the roller derby community. I’m trying to show the full spectrum of people in the derby universe – the “derbyverse.” So there are some skaters you’ve never heard of, plus officials, fans, and volunteers. You can watch the series at http://youtube.com/Derbyverse, and we have a Facebook page at http://facebook.com/Derbyverse. Come check it out. I think you’ll enjoy it.

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