Coming to a screen near you: the celebrity documentary

The success of 'The September Issue' has launched a new trend for the famous
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The Independent Online

As one of the most powerful women in fashion, Anna Wintour lives to launch new trends. But not even the US Vogue editor-in-chief could have predicted the runaway success of the latest craze she has inspired: big-screen documentaries about even bigger personalities.

Hot on the heels of the box-office hit The September Issue, a fly-on-the-wall film that lifted the lid on Wintour's office antics, comes a clutch of "ego trip" films about celebrities, slated for cinemas rather than burial on late-night cable channels.

Around a dozen documentaries about the famous, from the Rolling Stones to Hugh Hefner, have been made in recent months in what film critics have criticised as a further escalation of the cult of celebrity. Some are vanity projects, such as Billy Joel's Last Play at Shea, which cost the musician $4m (£2.7m) to have made, while others, such as Alex Gibney's as yet untitled film about the disgraced former New York governor, Eliot Spitzer, are more critical. Other celebrities to feature in films include the US comedian Joan Rivers; the Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner; and the fashion designer Halston.

Several of the new biopics premiered at the recent Tribeca Film Festival in New York; others are still awaiting release dates. All will hope they can replicate the success of The September Issue, which took more than $6m in global sales.

The film world is divided about the merits of such ventures, however. Jane Rosenthal, one of the Tribeca festival founders, said that A Piece of Work, which followed Joan Rivers as she turned 75, had helped to relaunch the comic's career. But Barry Norman, the film critic, said: "I don't see the point in watching a film about a stand-up comedian. These things belong on television not in the cinema. They're just an ego trip [for the protagonist]."

Sandra Hebron, the artistic director of the BFI London Film Festival, said she understood the fascination because documentary-makers are always on the hunt for interesting subjects. "Celebrities can be a bit of a gift because often they are not only talented individuals but also have interesting life stories. The September Issue was absolutely fascinating." She added that the rise in the number of films about famous people was "absolutely on trend with our cultural fascination with celebrities".

Not all of the big names featured jumped at the chance to participate. Gibney, who directed the Academy Award-nominated film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, had to make several attempts to persuade Eliot Spitzer to get involved. The ex-New York governor eventually agreed in the hope it might help to rehabilitate his flagging career. Not so Ashley Dupre, the call girl he was caught with, who declined to take part because she was worried that what she said might get twisted.

Ms Hebron, who is still sorting through entries for this year's festival, added that filmgoers should be wary about what they might be getting if they turned up to watch a big-screen biopic. "The audience should know that it might be watching a piece of promotional material rather than something more objective," she said.