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Docs ‘plex muscle

But will acad voters snub box-office successes?

Until last year, documentaries were Oscar’s neglected stepchild, without their own branch or representation on the Academy’s board of governors. Many times, it seemed the films that weren’t nominated received more attention than those that actually won an Oscar.

“Essentially, the Academy has done an almost flawless job over recent years of not nominating or honoring the best docs,” opines film critic Roger Ebert.

“There is only a tenuous connection between the Oscars’ attention to docs and the important work being done in that field in America,” adds Ebert, who has criticized the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ omission of films such as “Hoop Dreams,” “Roger & Me” and “My Brother’s Keeper.”

To Ebert, the nominating committee appears to be prejudiced against films “that are popular, that play in theaters and that make money.”

This year has seen such high-profile docs as USA Films’ “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and the solid box office success of Michael Moore’s crowdpleasing, thought-provoking “Bowling for Columbine” ($13 million-plus worldwide gross). But will the Academy’s doc nominating committee consider one with such broad appeal?

“The fact that ‘Bowling for Columbine’ has grossed more than $11 million proves that it appeals to all demographics, it’s not just for upper Westside intellectuals,” says Sandra Ruch, exec director of the Intl. Documentary Assn.

Now playing at both specialty cinemas and at commercial multiplexes, “Bowling for Columbine,” has become the third-highest box office earner among all narrative feature docs (MGM’s “That’s Entertainment” is No. 1 at $26.9 million); it should easily overtake the No. 2 earner, Madonna doc “Truth or Dare” with $15 million, by the end of its run.

The film benefits from Moore’s brand-name celeb status cultivated via his bestselling tome (“Stupid White Men”) his former TV series (“The Awful Truth,” “TV Nation”) and his highly trafficked Web site (MichaelMoore.com). Unlike other docmakers, he’s popular enough to be skewered in a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit.

UA’s Bingham Ray hopes the Academy will not “punish” “Bowling for Columbine” because of its acclaim (UA is distribbing pic domestically). Others argue that the Academy singles out filmmakers who may benefit from recognition, which might assure funding for future work.

No matter what happens come Oscar time, docs are a notoriously tough sell theatrically. As Ebert points out, American moviegoers are “essentially unadventurous. People risk their money and their time on something that is going to be a sure bet. Docs have no stars, are not sequels and don’t have special effects, (they) are not a sure bet for a lot of people.”

“Does the only reality (an audience) wants to see is ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘Fear Factor’? Is there an audience that wants to see films that touch issues in their lives?,” asks Stuart Sender, who with Malcolm Clarke co-directed “Prisoner of Paradise. The film follows Kurt Gerron, a German Jewish star director and performer – he worked with everyone from Marlene Deitrich to Bertolt Brecht – who was forced by the Nazis to make a propaganda film.

Sender says they consciously mixed art and entertainment. “We made a film for people who love movies. Our film is about the creative process and what lengths people will go to fulfill this (process). We also thought it was important to examine the power of images and propaganda. We knew when we picked this story it could appeal to a lot of people. We thought this film would be appealing to a broad audience.”

Certainly, the film’s exec producer, Jake Eberts, is familiar with what makes a great story, having been behind such hits as “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Dances With Wolves.”

And story is what Sender believes drew Eberts to the project.

Sender adds, “I hope what we’re seeing is not a fluke – that there’s really an audience to documentaries.”

Certainly “Prisoner’s” distrib Alliance Atlantis is behind the film, and knows the lessons of nonfiction pic distribution.

Word of mouth and good reviews are essential; theatrical distribution of docs is a marathon — not a sprint — for distribs.

“Think of it as the ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ of docs,” says Ray of “Bowling for Columbine.” “People of all ages and sizes are seeing the film; it’s appealing to a broad demographic. The numbers are great everywhere, the film doesn’t drop, and in many cases it builds.”

“Docs are a labor of love in the commercial marketplace,” opines Amorette Jones, exec VP of marketing for Artisan Pictures, which is distribbing “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” “It’s an act of discipline for distributors, there’s no instant gratification and there’s a different formula of success.”

Paul Justman’s music-filled “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” showcases the low-profile session musicians responsible for the Motown sound.

Artisan is using some of the lessons learned during the long run of its “Buena Vista Social Club” for “Standing.” Early outreach and screenings for simpatico audiences were pushed and Natl. Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences co-hosted an L.A. screening and live performance, which included some of the musicians. The distrib is also working closely with the soundtrack label, Hippo/Motown, for maximum retail exposure.

Marketing the film as a theatrical experience is all important. “As we position these films beyond the documentary fan base, we have to assure consumers they are going to be entertained,” says Jones, adding that moviegoers aren’t interested in paying for history lessons.

Distribs are very careful with doc P&A spending and seek out grassroots and special-event tie-ins to reach auds. Indeed, Artisan linked with Microsoft and BMW’s digital film series for extra ad dollars. In 25 markets, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” was projected digitally using Microsoft’s technology; a BMW short played at the head. It is the first partnership between BMW Films and a feature; the film’s baby boomer appeal is a sought-after demographic for the automaker.

In February, Artisan will launch “Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony,” about how songs of protest fueled the end of apartheid in South Africa. Tie-ins are in the planning stages but Dave Matthews’ label ATO Records will release the soundtrack.

Other doc distribs also seek out promo partners. Lions Gate Films is partnering with the Big Brothers nonprofit org prior to its release of doc “Stevie” — director Steve James’ look at the troubled life of a boy he was paired with in the program.

Tom Ortenberg, prexy of Lions Gate Releasing, acquired “Stevie” because he believes it plays like a narrative film. Launched at the Toronto film fest, pic will go on to Sundance and then a March U.S. release.

A festival splash adds notoriety and garners much needed press, improving a doc’s theatrical chances.

“More people are seeing docs,” says Ortenberg, “(but) that doesn’t mean the next will be a hit, but it betters the chances they’ll go see another one. Anything that helps open doors is a good thing.”

Filmmakers can count on increased television exposure. Starting in March, the Sundance Channel will devote every Monday solely to documentary programming. Alex Gibney’s “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” kicks off the series.

“Derrida” — which is garnering lots of buzz — co-director Kirby Dick attributes the profusion of quality docs to digital filmmaking and nonlinear editing.

“Because a doc’s shooting ratio is so high, nonlinear editing allows people to deal with the volume of footage in a more efficient way,” says the helmer. It’s now easier to tell a good story, as shaping of a doc is done in the post-production phase.

Both the Los Angeles and New York Sunday Times included doc features in their fall film listings and have notably increased doc reviews.

Neil Friedman of distrib Menemsha Films, which is handling “The Shanghai Ghetto,” notes that even if a doc is terrific, luck and timing play into the release. “You need to release the right week, you need to draw the right critic.”

This fall, for the first year ever, there was a flurry of “For your consideration ads” in the IDA Magazine, a 136% increase over 2001, notes the IDA’s . Certainly, an Academy Award nomination can lift a doc from obscurity; but competition is extremely tough for those slots, particularly this year, when 73 doc features are eligible for consideration.

After members of the documentary branch whittle down that list to five, campaigning begins in earnest.

However, UA’s campaign for “Bowling,” won’t stop at the doc feature category, states UA’s Ray. “We’re going for best picture, a documentary has never been nominated, this might be the year of the anomaly.”

A documentary earning a nod for best picture? Now that’s as mainstream as acceptance gets.

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