NEW YORK — “Evans, we have a big problem,” booms Charlie Bluhdorn in his Austrian accent. “The board of directors wants to close down the studio. It’s turning a cash flow into a cash drought!”
“Charlie, just give me one half hour with the board. Just one half hour!”
“You’re crazy, Evans! The last person they want to see is you!”
“Yeah, but crazy good, Charlie. I have one ace. It’s ‘Love Story’ and I’m going to build a hand around it.”
Evans takes a one-way ticket to New York. He shows up for a board meeting, plays them the trailer for “Love Story.” The board is in tears. Evans leaves the boardroom and sees Bluhdorn in the hallway.
“I’m fired, right?” he says. Bluhdorn responds: “You’re some showman, Evans. You really pulled the wool over their eyes. Now get back to work!”
Robert Towne couldn’t have scripted it better. But it’s not a work of fiction. It’s “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” a documentary based on Hollywood legend Robert Evans’ autobiography.
With cinematography by John Bailey (“As Good as It Gets”) and a dramatic sequence that uses classic movies to capture Evans’ temporary schizophrenia during the period when he was accused of murder, Academy Award-nominated documentarians Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen (“On the Ropes”) have taken the form to a new level.
“It’s not a documentary –it’s perseverance,” says Evans, in New York for the final mix of the doc. “This doesn’t have to do with Hollywood, it has to do with life, with simple fucking survival. With getting up from the canvas and fighting the odds. It’s a dramatic film. It’s a journey — sometimes to hell and sometimes touching a bit of heaven.”
USA Films has heavenly hopes for its theatrical release of “Kid,” scheduled for later this year. And so does the documentary film community.
Documentaries have been struggling to shrug off their stigma as “educational films” for years.
“Reviews are not enough,” notes UTA agent Howard Cohen. “There’s only a limited theatrical window. It’s an uphill battle.”
Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, laments: “The regular press is reluctant to do much with documentaries, exhibitors are reluctant to play them, and you need to work overtime to create an awareness for them.”
But there have been a host of success stories.
Last year’s releases included “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic,” “Startup.com,” Martin Scorsese’s “My Voyage to Italy,” “Bounce: Beyond the Velvet Rope,” “Grateful Dog” and “Trembling Before G-d.”
This year Sony Pictures Classics’ will distrib skateboarding doc “Dogtown and Z-Boys”; Miramax will release “Only the Strong Survive,” a “Buena Vista Social Club”-like valentine to American soul music; and ContentFilm is angling to buy Nancy Pelosi’s candid behind-the-scenes look at George Bush, “Journeys With George,” made during the president’s election campaign.
George Butler’s “The Endurance” was the highest-grossing theatrical doc in 2001 — its cume is now just north of $2 million — and an unusual one at that.
Most of the best-known and lucrative docs have been music-oriented (“Woodstock,” ; “Stop Making Sense,” ; “Buena Vista Social Club,” ) or sports-centered (“Hoop Dreams,” ; “When We Were Kings,” ). Neither music or sports-oriented, “The Endurance” centers on Ernest Shackleton’s heroic 1914 expedition to the Antarctic.
Those cheered by the pic’s success see that documentaries are slowly throwing off the dry, good-for-you mantle of the past and moving into more mainstream territory.
Testimony of just how mainstream docs are becoming: At the upcoming Academy Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will pay tribute to documentaries for their unique contribution to film culture.
“There are lots of great docs that shouldn’t be in theaters and won’t work there,” says John Vanco, co-president of Cowboy Pictures, which distributed “The Endurance” and “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.”
Vanco believes “The Endurance,” based on Butler’s wife Caroline Alexander’s book, is succeeding in part because of the time. “It’s hitting a nerve in the post-Sept. 11 climate,” he says. “This is a time when people are looking for heroes.”
The doc’s success does not follow any traditional pattern. Its highest grosses are not in New York or Los Angeles but in places such as San Francisco, Seattle and Minneapolis — niche markets where people may be more in touch with nature and have a greater sense of adventure.
Reached aboard a Russian ship in the Antarctic where he is researching a project, Butler says there is still available sponsorship money for documentary filmmakers.
He found financing for “The Endurance,” which he made simultaneously with a two-hour “Nova” doc via PBS affiliate WGBH and investment banking firm Morgan Stanley. Tyco and Monster.com also helped finance the projects, with Britain’s Channel 4 and Germany’s Telepool taking presales.
Says Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple, who is currently making a four-hour miniseries for ABC about the Hamptons: “The environment is anything but dismal. Making documentaries is a totally viable place to be. And it’s starting to be even more viable.”