‘Sicko’ could heal documentaries

Genre slumps after spate of B.O. winners

The Weinstein Co. and Lionsgate are hoping it is going to be a “Sicko” summer. So do plenty of exhibs and distribs in the docu world.

After “Bowling for Columbine” and “Supersize Me” helped heat up the genre, the bar was set awfully high for docus, with “March of the Penguins,” “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “An Inconvenient Truth” upping the stakes even more.

This year, though, the public’s love affair with docs seems to have cooled, with 29 releases grossing less than $2 million combined. Many hope “Sicko” can add some spark to the genre, but the docu world is seeing a market correction.

Instead of a wide release of “Sicko,” the bow has been scaled back to something closer to 800 runs, and TWC says it’s hoping for a gross in the range of “Bowling for Columbine’s” $21.6 million, not “Fahrenheit’s” $119 million.

The return to rationality was perhaps inevitable for a corner of the film market that hasn’t traditionally drawn huge buzz or box office.

The title of 2007’s top-grossing doc is telling: “Into Great Silence,” a nearly three-hour film about Carthusian monks with no dialogue, which has grossed $666,587. (“Angry Monk,” by comparison, made $3,178. There’s a lesson somewhere there.)

“The audience becomes conditioned to be able to process certain kinds of filmmaking,” says Tom Bernard, co-prexy of Sony Pictures Classics. “So when ‘Survivor’ happened (in 2000), people started being able to latch onto the documentary form that used to be a much smaller part of the film world.”

Ted Mundorff, chief operating officer at Landmark Theaters, says docs “used to be thought of as something you’d see in seventh grade on a 16mm projector. Filmmaking today is so much more dynamic. People didn’t say ‘March of the Penguins’ was a documentary — they just found it entertaining.”

A few docs with commercial hooks got traction when they managed to tap the cultural zeitgeist earlier this decade. Reality-obsessed tabloids blossomed, biopics enjoyed a resurgence (think “Ray” and “The Queen”) and reality started to fill every cranny of the TV dial. Now, at this saturation point, theatrical returns for docs are slipping significantly, with much of the upside shifting to ancillaries.

Since the release of “An Inconvenient Truth” more than a year ago, only “Wordplay” has really resonated, with a $3.1 million tally that’s big by doc standards. In that period, pics with festival and press attention like “God Grew Tired of Us,” “Deliver Us From Evil,” “Zoo” and “Air Guitar Nation” have struggled.

In 2006, docs did $55 million, but even that was a big dip from 2005 — the watershed year of “March of the Penguins,” “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Grizzly Man” — when the tally was $116 million. Thanks to films like “Penguins,” five of the top-grossing titles for Landmark’s national arthouse chain were docs in 2004 and 2005. In ’06, the number fell to three of 25 and thus far in ’07 only “Silence” has been a noteworthy performer.

“There is a little bit of a fatigue factor right now in the public with documentaries because a lot of films that are coming out are addressing hard subject matter,” says Heidi Ewing, who co-directed “Jesus Camp,” which was released last September amid plenty of press and cumed $902,544. “Filmmakers feel a responsibility right now to address the war, the state of the union, and sometimes those stories are hard to watch.”

Especially in a 24-hour mediasphere that includes Web video and mobile content, director Morgan Spurlock says audiences “hear it on the news and they see it on television so they probably go, ‘Why do I want to go a theater and pay $10 to see something that might further depress me about what is happening in the world?’ ”

That was a topic on many minds at the fifth annual Silverdocs, the Washington, D.C.-area docu film fest that unspooled June 12-17. Many of the 100 films from 41 countries tackled serious issues, among them “Taxi to the Dark Side,” a Tribeca prize-winner about U.S. military torture practices; the abortion pic “Lake of Fire” and the Sundance opener “Chicago 10.”

Jonathan Demme’s “New Home Movies From the Lower 9th Ward,” which examines the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, also premiered at Silverdocs. The fest’s closing-night pic has been tabbed by some B.O. watchers as a beacon of commercial hope: National Geographic’s “Arctic Tale” tracks a polar bear and a walrus.

Even those making, distributing or exhibiting “harder” docs have had stars in their eyes since the boom began, Ewing says. “Everybody hopes that you are going to make the documentary that makes $40 million or $50 million,” she says. “But the reality is that the life of it does not end in the theater.”

Just ask Spurlock, who is wading into political waters with his next effort, a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

“There are so many other places for people who distribute docs to make money,” he says. “It’s not just about one place anymore, which used to be television. I think with the popularity of theatrical and now with the boom of the DVD, to pay $1 million for a documentary that you know is going to have some legs — I don’t think that is unheard of.”

Sony Classics, in fact, just paid in the range of $1.8 million for the Sundance entry “My Kid Could Paint That,” though Bernard is quick to note that it is a worldwide deal.

Mark Cuban-owned Magnolia Pictures is known as a doc haven, having steered “Enron” past $4 million. It has also gotten some promising early returns on “Crazy Love.”

Magnolia prexy Eamonn Bowles says the reality TV boom has been a boon to docs.

“People see that they can be in really dramatic situations without stars and agents, just normal people. People next door can truly have mind-twisting stories.”

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