Studio arms bring feature promo tactics to nonfiction

When the trailer for the Al Gore environmental treatise “An Inconvenient Truth” began flashing across screens, auds likely thought they were watching promos for the latest Roland Emmerich disaster spectacle.

The move to pump the pic with general auds and not just eggheads is one more indication that studio subsids are blurring the line between documentaries and scripted features.

With sophisticated marketing campaigns and creators treated as a new A-list, the nonfiction form is starting to influence the feature world, and vice versa. Docs like “An Inconvenient Truth” use Hollywood-caliber production values, a compelling story structure and even a score.

A low-budget spelling bee pic that broke out in 2003, ThinkFilm’s “Spellbound” even spawned a wave of dramatized takes on spelling contests, including “Bee Season” and “Akeelah and the Bee.” And Universal’s “United 93″ played like it was shot by a voyeuristic doc director.

“If you go up to someone in a mall and ask them how many docs they saw last year, they might say zero,” says Ted Mundorff, veep and head film buyer at Landmark Theaters, the largest specialty film chain.

“Then you’d ask if they saw ‘March of the Penguins’ and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, was that a doc?’ (The film) does not come across as something you saw in class your sophomore year of high school.”

In the Sundance lineup this year, the Gore docu might not have popped out as an obvious target for studio specialty arms, which were mostly circling a pic that starred Steve Carell, “Little Miss Sunshine.”

But John Lesher’s (freshly named) Paramount Vantage saw the title as a kind of real-life “Day After Tomorrow,” with marketability based on its urgent message and Gore’s willingness to stump for the pic’s promotion.

Vantage even hired the house that made trailers for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to cut the pic’s promos, and booked Gore on “Saturday Night Live” as well as the latenight talk circuit.

Exhibitors took notice.

“We looked at ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ as something that should be out there, and it just happened to be a doc,” Mundorff says. “And it was one of the best things we’ve seen this year.”

In Hollywood, execs and auds alike used to view documentaries as akin to wheat germ: Something bland to choke down because you know it’s good for you in-between your guilty pleasures.

“Now, you have people saying, ‘You’re so cool, you make documentaries,'” says Bill Couturie, a helmer of such pics as “Vietnam Requiem,” “Earth and the American Dream” and Variety’s upcoming “Boffo! Tinseltown’s Bombs and Blockbusters.”

“Years ago, you couldn’t get arrested. Back when I started doing the docs, HBO wouldn’t allow us to call them documentaries. They called them ‘docutainment,’ because they thought no one would want to watch them.”

Now auds are coming out for docus about everything from fatcats (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) to fat folks (“Super Size Me”).

These days, even Hollywood’s most commercial producers are getting into the act: Dean Devlin (“Independence Day”) produced Sony Pictures Classics’ “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” while Sydney Pollack directed “Sketches of Frank Gehry.”

Doc creators also are becoming sought-after talent. Agents — the heat-seeking missiles of the biz — are zeroing in on documakers as hot clients and ones they can even launch into careers on narrative pics. Studio subsids are snapping them up at film fests, and in some cases, the pics are redefining the fortunes of companies.

“Agencies want to rep all these documentary makers,” says one industry vet. “They see there is money to be made. Look at what it’s done for (‘An Inconvenient Truth’ director) Davis Guggenheim. It’s giving him heat in the feature world.”

Rivals tittered when Warner Independent picked up the seemingly mild “March of the Penguins” at Sundance two years ago, while the rest of the studio subsids swooned over brash pimp pic “Hustle & Flow.” “Penguins” waddled on to take in more than $50 million than “Hustle.”

The studio subsids are now following what the indies have known for a few years, that some of these nonfiction pics have potential theatrical legs as well as DVD value. The pics’ popularity has spread beyond the most hardcore arthouses in Gotham, Los Angeles and college towns. At Landmark Theaters, docs made up 16% of total ticket revenue in 2005, compared to 15% in 2004 and just 8% in 2003. Netflix has also benefited.

Reality boom

Some execs pin the popularity of docs on reality TV. But documakers shun such talk, noting the boob tube doesn’t have the “deeply emotional resonance that people get off on being in an audience.”

The doc boom is traced to a steady flow of product from HBO, led by Sheila Nevins, as well as Michael Moore’s breakout “Bowling for Columbine” in 2003. That was followed by “Spellbound,” “Winged Migration” and “Capturing the Friedmans,” all of which outpaced expectations, as did “Super Size Me” in 2004. So unexpected was the success of “Spellbound” that it helped indie label ThinkFilm become one of the top distribs of docus, rolling out pics such as “The Aristocrats” and “Murderball.”

WIP’s pickup of “Penguins” also showed studio subsids that high production values could be added to the form, with new narration, music and mixes. It transformed what looked like a Discovery Channel doc into one that had the tone of a commercial feature, with Morgan Freeman as narrator along with a new score.

While doc makers expect the trend to continue, with Moore’s “Sicko,” about the health-care industry, due later this year, they also see a flood of aspirants trying to get in on the action.

“Michael Moore is a brand,” Couturie says. “‘Mission Impossible’ is a brand. You know what you are getting. It’s like a Big Mac. Other documentaries, you don’t have that. It’s like saying after ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Let’s go make a sci-fi movie and make a lot of money.'”

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