Festival buzz fails to translate to box office

SYDNEY — The Oz theatrical market for documentaries is mirroring the genre’s slump at the U.S. box office.

At the Melbourne Film Festival’s recent 37 South film mart, international sales agents and financiers agreed that the theatrical market for docs was kaput.

At fests such as Melbourne, docu screenings are usually hot tickets, but this isolated interest rarely translates into a release that works in theaters.

“There’s definitely a downturn in the theatrical documentary market,” says Fortissimo’s Ashley Luke.

“The market for theatrical documentaries is becoming smaller,” agrees Andrew Orr, managing director of London’s Independent.

Figures from the Motion Picture Distributors Assn. of Australia back up those statements. In 2005 and 2006, 41 and 40 documentaries, respectively were released, while in 2007 the total fell back to 33, the same number released in 2004 and this year even fewer will likely find cinema berths.

Interest in showing docs theatrically blossomed after 2004, when four documentaries were able top A$1 million ($877,750) including Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″ with $12 million.

Then in 2006, “March of the Penguins” grossed $7 million for Roadshow, the same year “An Inconvenient Truth” grossed $6 million for United Intl. Pictures.

Since then only one documentary, “The Bra Boys,” has surpassed A$1 million.

Pic, narrated by Russell Crowe, gives an intimate peek into the Bra Boys public- housing surf gang that had gained notoriety for scuffles with police, murder accusations and the international success of member and big wave surfer Koby Abberton. Pic was produced by his brother Sunny.

“The bubble has burst — political documentaries are dead,” says Troy Lum, managing director of Oz’s most successful docu distributor Hopscotch.

Hopscotch, which distribbed “Bra Boys,” also saw successful releases for entertaining non-fiction titles such as “Spellbound” and science doc “What the Bleep Do We Know?!”

While it looks like a theatrical future may be increasingly unrealistic except for a very few titles, most will eventually find homes on television.

Tania Chambers, chief executive of New South Wales’ Film and Television Office, says the key is for filmmakers to be realistic about where their film should end up.

“Nearly all of the feature documentaries have a television version and most have funding from (pubcasters) ABC or SBS,” Chambers says. Theatrical distributors, however, have reduced incentive to pick up films when the broadcaster is already attached.

“The problem for distributors is they take massive risk against the television rights and those deals are already done,” Chambers says.

It’s become a tough new world for Oz docu producers, when just two years ago Screen Australia (formerly the FFC) made funding feature docs a priority. Until that org gets a CEO (feds are taking their time in appointing one), it’s anyone’s guess what the new funding direction will be.

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