Docu's box office over $3 mil

With narrative films that have recognizable casts struggling to generate a million dollars at the box office, you have to read the list of ingredients when a docu like “Food, Inc.” has served up more than $3 million.

For starters, the film has a backer and a powerful partner in Participant Media, the company that sparked the socially conscious doc surge in 2006 with “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Ever since Al Gore’s Oscar-winning slide show, Jeff Skoll’s label has helped finance and/or promote at least a half dozen documentaries covering topics including Darfur and U.S. policy on detainees. Not all have been breakout hits, but each pic is supported by a dedicated social action campaign that runs alongside the film’s traditional marketing.

“Food, Inc.,” co-financed by Participant and Bill Pohlad’s River Road, seems to have found the kind of traction that drives Participant’s dual goal of moving the discussion forward while also doing business.

“It’s a double bottom line,” explained John Schreiber, Participant’s exec VP of social action and advocacy. “Doing good and doing good at the box office go totally hand in hand. The more people that see the movies, the more opportunities we have to affect social change.”

“Food, Inc.,” helmed by Robert Kenner, unearths the nutritional demise of America’s chow and the forces driving it. It’s a serious message, but for distributor Magnolia Pictures, it was important to keep the pic’s marketing light.

One tagline for the film: “You’ll never look at dinner the same way.”

“We did heavy work with the foodie community and got chefs involved to make it more palatable (pun intended) for a wider audience,” Magnolia prexy Eamonn Bowles said. “We took the angle, ‘Hey, it’s good for you but also good food.’ “

Brand partners eager to promote themselves with the healthier food movement jumped onboard, too. A few weeks into the film’s run, restaurant chain Chipotle bought out several theaters and invited customers to see the film for free. Whole Foods spread the word, as did Stonyfield Farms — on yogurt lids.

“The online shout-outs from the food community were immense,” Bowles added. “Every serious food blog references the film at some point.”

Participant’s social action group gathered organizations involved in food issues to help get the word out. They traveled to Washington, along with 150 moms, to lobby to remove junk food from schools.

They’re also working to introduce the film’s educational message to school curricula — as they did with 2007′s “Darfur Now.” Participant’s website, TakePart.com, also provides a year-round platform for discussion, involvement and more information.

The combined effort seemed to help. “Food, Inc.” performed strongly right out of the gate in mid-June. It reached 155 theaters last weekend and hit $3.2 million. Bowles expects the pic to top $4 million by the end of its run.

This past week another documentary with a social message, Louie Psihoyos’ “The Cove,” opened to promising numbers via distrib Roadside Attractions. It did $57,640 on four screens in New York and Los Angeles, nearly reaching what “Food, Inc.” took on its opening three screens($60,513).

Participant’s social action campaigners are also behind “The Cove.” They joined the cause after the film showed at Sundance in January. The pic plays like a thriller. With a former “Flipper” trainer at its center and a dream team of divers and movie tech wizards in tow, the filmmakers attempt to infiltrate a barricaded cove in Japan. Their mission: to uncover what happens to the thousands of dolphins corralled there each year. What they find is not pretty.

Roadside’s co-prexy Howard Cohen said the pic had “a hump to get over with the subject matter. Women have told me, ‘I don’t know if I can see that.’ “

Moviegoers for “The Cove” have skewed younger than typical arthouse audiences, and more male, Cohen said.

Participant enlisted orgs including the Humane Society and Earth Island Institute. It also added a call to action via text message. At the end of the film’s credits, auds are invited to text the word “dolphin” to 44144 and are then given the option to join a letter-writing campaign to bring the various issues dealt with in the film to the attention of government officials. The “opt-in” rate so far is above average, according to Participant.

On Tuesday, Participant launched five humorous dolphin videos on FunnyOrDie.com. “It might be an unexpected audience for a straight doc, but we’re experimenting,” Schreiber said.

Roadside welcomes the Participant boost. “It’s significant added value for movies that need the help, like docs,” Cohen said. “They add a whole other dimension and have a lot of people working there.”

Roadside hopes that word of mouth, on top of the film’s numerous festival audience awards (Sundance, Silverdocs, Hot Docs, to name a few), will lift the pic into the same realm as “Food, Inc.”

“The Cove” expands from three to 56 runs in 25 markets this week.

“This is the big test,” Cohen said.

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