U.S.-critical docus still float o’seas

'Fahrenheit' B.O. helped raise profile of non-fiction fare

Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” was the docu that goosed the global hankering for nonfiction features a couple of years ago. But the heat generated by its political content was nothing compared with the conflagration sparked by its $100 million-plus B.O. take.

Suddenly, documentaries became a viable theatrical category, a perhaps shaky notion that was lent further credence by the boffo takes of films such as “Super Size Me” and this year’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

But with the American Film Market approaching, one wonders just how hot these documentary fires still burn overseas.

Films Transit Intl. president Jan Rofekamp, a docu purveyor since the early ’80s, says he’s never seen anything like the nonfiction prairie fire started by Moore’s film, but he insists this “is still a very fragile category. All it takes is one bad season, and the distributors will be going back to their old ways.”

Rofekamp underlines that of the world’s 200 nations, only 40 or 50 of those have arthouse distributors with any interest in docus. “Italy has 45 distributors,” he says, “but only two buy docs. And those two may buy 15 films a year, but only one or two of those films are docs. Those are not good odds.”

Submarine Entertainment sales agent Josh Braun agrees: “The honeymoon may be over. Documentaries have lost a bit of the glamour they had two years ago. Buyers are a lot more cautious, but when they see a film they like, the response is immediate.”

Braun says distribs were quick to react to “Deliver Us From Evil,” Amy Berg’s gut-wrenching pic about the confessions of a dangerous priest. It was picked up domestically in June by Lionsgate, immediately after its debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Lionsgate also took foreign rights.

Lionsgate had another doc on the fest circuit this fall, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” which it purposely did not presell. Pic was scooped up by foreign buyers at Venice and Toronto, and should be sold out by AFM, says Lionsgate’s international sales prexy Stephanie Denton.

While most sales agents say the cream still rises to the top among docus, they admit there has been a dropoff in interest.

“North American films have stopped traveling,” Rofekamp says. “A couple years ago, George Bush told the rest of the world ‘We don’t give a fuck what you think,’ and now the rest of the world has said, ‘Well, me too.’ ”

This current mindset overseas means that those quirky slice of Americana docs that once played so well in Europe are now not playing at all.

“You can still find buyers for blue-state documentaries,” says consultant Mark Horowitz, who recently worked with ThinkFilm on foreign sales for docs including “The Aristocrats” and mockumentary “Farce of the Penguins.” “Internationally, they may claim to hate us, but it may be more of a love/hate relationship, because they’ll still sit down and watch us be self-critical.”

A good example of a recent critical docu is “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing.” The Weinstein Co. snapped up world rights to the pic before its bow at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

Music-themed docus aside, among the tougher sells these days are portrait-of-an-artist films, especially of the American artist. Part of the reason, say sellers, comes down to an increase in local commissions in overseas territories.

In the last five years, especially in Europe, these domestic productions have risen to 80% of docu titles. It’s an across-the-board shift that leaves a world of sellers competing for a meager 20% of most markets.

Hundreds of new cable/satellite channels around the world — many of which support docus with exceptional marketing campaigns — are increasing the potential buyer pool. However, broadcasters are spending less and less per film. Over the past five years, say execs, in places such as Sweden and Denmark, docs that once garnered $6,000 are now getting half that.

And this affects the overall sale price to a territory.

“Even in an up-and-coming market like Australia,” says Roco Films Intl. founder Annie Roney, who handled films such as “Born Into Brothels,” “you may sell the doc theatrically, but no one’s going to retire on the profits.”

That is, unless your name happens to be Michael Moore.

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