Buzz factors into race

'Penguins' march to boffo B.O., but outstanding field looks to yield surprises

The Academy picks one docu feature winner, while the Intl. Documentary Assn. selects two features for its top prize. And though there may be some overlap between the 138 members of AMPAS’ docu branch and IDA’s 2,700 members, the latter’s shortlist is compiled by a selection committee of just 15 people (and winners are chosen by a group of five). There’s also a discrepancy in deadline timing between the two orgs. The IDA begins its selection process June 10, and does the bulk of its work during the summer, while the qualifying deadline for AMPAS submissions is Sept. 1. Most often, the correspondence in doc award recognition occurs among the nominees and shortlisted films for both orgs. The actual winners, listed below, have coincided only once in the last five years.
IDA “Born Into Brothels,” “Fahrenheit 9/11”
AMPAS“Born Into Brothels”
IDA “Balseros,” “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
AMPAS“The Fog of War”
IDA “Mai’s America,” “Senorita extraviada”
AMPAS “Bowling for Columbine”
IDA “Children Underground,” “”
AMPAS“Murder on a Sunday Morning”
IDA “Gulag,” “Swedish Tango”
AMPAS“Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport”

It’s impossible to consider this year’s documentary Oscar contenders without bringing up a visually dazzling nature doc released by Warner Independent Pictures. “The March of the Penguins” set the wickets on fire with $76 million in domestic B.O. and counting — making it the second-highest docu grosser after “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

But whether “Penguins” will march away with the Oscar remains very much an open question. For starters, the valiant birds are competing in an outstanding year. There’s a range of fest faves — from “Murderball” to “Grizzly Man” — and still others that more below-the-radar that are betting on an Oscar nom to launch them into wide theatrical release.

“The quality of the work this year has been exceptional,” says Sandra Ruch, exec director of the Intl. Documentary Assn., which has singled out 13 titles as candidates for its IDA feature awards.

Remarkably, “Penguins” doesn’t even figure on IDA’s list — though the org did recognize it as one of nine nominees for the Pare Lorentz award, which honors films in the spirit of Lorentz’s lyrical 1937 nature doc “The River.” Given that the IDA awards, to be held Dec. 9, accurately presaged the Oscars last year, the omission could be seen to augur poorly for the penguins. Then again, the IDAs didn’t match the Oscars in the four years leading up to last year.

Also missing from the IDA noms is Lion’s Gate/Discovery’s “Grizzly Man,” Werner Herzog’s disturbing saga of obsessed bear-watcher Timothy Treadwell and his eventual doom, which unspooled to raves at Sundance in January.

The IDA’s selection committee did recognize some high-profile docs, including three that have broken the $1 million mark at the box office: Paramount Classics’ “Mad Hot Ballroom,” which at $8 million and counting is the year’s second-highest grossing doc; ThinkFilm’s “Murderball,” which stalled at $1.5 million in theaters but maintains passionate critical support; and Magnolia’s “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” which scored widespread media attention and critical praise, along with a $4.1 million gross.

The org gave two nods, a feature nom and a Pare Lorentz shot, to ThinkFilm/HBO’s “Favela Rising,” currently making a splash on the fest circuit with its tale of a charismatic Rio de Janeiro slum-dweller whose involvement in the Afro-Reggae dance/music movement rouses others to action.

Also generating buzz is IDA short-list title “Our Brand Is Crisis,” director Rachel Boynton’s look at American political campaign marketing tactics and their consequences when James Carville & Co. help an ill-qualified candidate gain office in Bolivia.

And still on the radar, though not the IDA list, is “Rize,” a Sundance debutant about inner-city Los Angeles youth involved in their own style of dance, which drew $3.4 million for distrib Lions Gate.

At this early stage of the game, docs that have made their mark in theaters tend to loom largest in the minds of onlookers, but the Academy historically has been indifferent to box office when choosing its honorees. “Obviously, we know that ‘March of the Penguins’ has been out there, and that’s good for the genre and the whole view of documentary films, and that excites us,” says Arthur Dong, vice chair of the Acad’s docu branch executive committee. “But box office is not on everybody’s mind.”

Indeed, last year’s winner, “Born Into Brothels,” had played only two theaters when it was nominated. Likewise, “Spellbound” and “Winged Migration,” which both went on to theatrical success, had played theaters only for brief qualifying runs.

Dong says the branch strives to remain unbiased and leave room for discovery. “We really try to keep the focus on the films — not the ads, not the box office and not the reviews,” he says. “I feel confident in saying that many of our members abide by that.”

The Acad’s shortlist is expected to be revealed this week.

Interest in the docu Oscar category has swelled noticeably in recent years. As more nonfiction films find a foothold in theaters, distributors are recognizing the Acad’s power to bestow a marketing hook, even at the nominations stage.

Mark Urman, ThinkFilm’s U.S. distrib head, is a determined competitor who’s developed a taste for Oscar gold in recent years. His company scored noms in each of the past three years, and won last time round with “Brothels.” He comes to the fight with a full card, including “Murderball,” winner of the docu audience award at Sundance for its saga of rough-edged, wheelchair-bound rugby players; “Favela Rising”; “The Untold Story of Emmett Lewis Till”; “Protocols of Zion”; “Diameter of the Bomb,” about a suicide bomber on a Tel Aviv bus; and “The Aristocrats.”

The latter is one of the year’s B.O. standouts, with $7 million-plus domestically. It features dozens of comics telling the same dirty joke, but Urman maintains that “its prospects are no joke at all. It’s been taken surprisingly seriously.”

As for “Penguins,” it tends to be discounted by some in the doc community because its boffo success came after its distributor made changes to the original French film, adding an engaging English-language narration by Morgan Freeman and a new score.

“There’s been a lot of talk this year about documentaries that were re-engineered by their distributors,” says Urman, none too obliquely. “If it’s not a filmmaker’s film, if it’s been re-cut and polished by a major corporation or two, that is not necessarily going to stand it in good stead with documentarians.”

Counters WIP topper Mark Gill: “The film represents about as challenging a filmmaking scenario as you can think of. The pure agony of shooting it (in Antarctica) deserves some sort of Purple Heart. Hopefully, the judges will base their decision on how well they like the film, notwithstanding any baggage it may have from being such a big success.”

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