Attendance cools for documentaries

Michael Moore’s “Sicko” is, by any measure, a documentary blockbuster, raking in ticket sales at the box office. But unlike recent years, Moore’s fellow documentarians haven’t followed his success.

So far, the second highest-grossing doc of the year is “Into Great Silence,” Zeitgeist’s nearly three-hour portrait of a Catholic monastery, which has grossed just north of $750,000.

Compare the current landscape to two years ago when at least eight docs achieved multimillion-dollar status (from “March of the Penguins” all the way to “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”), and you have what could be called a temporary documentary recession.

“This is a very down year for docs,” admits Magnolia Pictures’ Eamonn Bowles. “One of the biggest shocks I’ve ever had professionally is how ‘Crazy Love’” — a critical and popular Sundance hit — “didn’t perform,” he says. “That film had everything going for it, and, for whatever reason, I think audiences wanted something that was softer and wouldn’t wig them out,” he says.

Bowles also blames, in part, Netflix for the downturn. “Docs perform disproportionally well on Netflix, relative to the theatrical marketplace,” he says. “I do think that’s where a lot of the doc business is going.”

Zeitgeist’s Emily Russo, whose company has been distributing docs since the late ’80s, says the drop is just a part of normal business cycles. And if the documentary genre peaked a couple years ago, the format is now becoming a victim of its own success.

“There are so many docs being released right now,” she says. “How many can we expect to capture an audience?”

Then again, the doc depression may very well see an upswing shortly. Though Paramount Vantage’s “Arctic Tale” tanked, Magnolia’s Iraqumentary “No End in Sight” opened strongly, and this fall a number of high-profile nonfiction films will hit the market. Titles include ThinkFilm’s “In the Shadow of the Moon,” Picturehouse’s “The King of Kong,” Sony Picture Classics’ “My Kid Could Paint That,” WIP’s “The 11th Hour,” Magnolia Pictures’ “Terror’s Advocate” and Sundance doc winner “Manda Bala,” which is benefiting from an aggressive rollout from City Lights Pictures’ new distribution arm.

All the titles will be battling it out for what’s ultimately a small theatrical pie, but the trick to making a doc work, says City Lights’ Danny Fisher, is to “play by the rules that don’t cost the prints and adverting that you associate with a commercial release. It’s word of mouth; it’s grassroots.”

Warner Independent Pictures’ marketing and publicity guru Laura Kim says the secret to doc success is “good reviews, timeliness and something that makes the film cinematic, as opposed to what people see on the news every day. The film itself is ultimately the most powerful selling tool.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more