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Movies take a page from reality TV

December 27, 2010 | 10:29 am

Among other trends at the movies this year, 2010 has been a year when nonfiction films have increasingly assumed the shape of the scripted feature. The social-media movie "Catfish" was as much a thriller as a documentary. "Jack-Ass 3-D" was a true story, but with as many gross-out hijinks as "Bruno."

But as nonfiction films imitated their scripted cousins, the trend has also unfolded in reverse : scripted features are now more influenced -- and constrained -- by the conventions of documentary.

At least 13 movies this fall season are based on real-life stories, including a survival drama ("127 Hours"), a Silicon Valley history ( "The Social Network"), a legal tale ( "Conviction"), a boxing saga ("The Fighter"), a heart-stopping action flick ( "Unstoppable") and a heart-tugging romantic dramedy ("Love & Other Drugs").

In a story in Monday's Times, we take a look at the fact-based trend: what's behind it, where it's leading and what risks it poses. As "127 Hours" director Danny Boyle says: "As a director, you like having a real story because that's what makes it more powerful. But it's also hard because you know you're dealing with someone's life." Or as "Conviction" star Hilary Swank says of the subgenre: "You can't take a lot of liberty with the storytelling."

After a decade of reality television, the movie business is finally catching up. Studios are flogging the truth (or at least truthy) horse. And judging by how well some of the movies have performed so far, it's not a moment too soon. We're all suckers, it seems, for stories that come with a based-on-a-true-story tag.

But are we consumed by reality-inspired stories at our peril? 

"I think everybody is exhausted by neat, shapely fictional stories we've had for so long, and a compelling situation from real life is much more interesting," film historian David Thomson tells The Times. "But there's a great danger. Every time a story is made out of a real person's experience, we enter into a process of distortion."

More on all these issues and entanglements here.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: James Franco in "127 Hours." Credit: Fox Searchlight

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