The niche occupied by documentaries in the domestic marketplace has been on a steady decline for more than a decade. In 1994, non-fiction features amounted to roughly one-third of 1% of the box office.
Yet such high-profile films as “Hoop Dreams,” “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paris Is Burning” have given a false sense of a growing public taste for non-narrative fare. Docus’ popularity may be expanding, but a historic examination reveals that there’s a lot of catching up to be done to reach the theatrical levels attained between 1952 and the early 1980s.
The most encouraging sign is that people are discussing and arguing about dox. One has to go back 30 years to the era of “shockumentaries” typified by “Mondo Cane,” “The Sky Above and the Mud Below” and “Titicut Follies” to find a comparable period when nonfiction films were the subject of heated debate.
Commercially, the most successful nonfiction films since the dawn of cinema have been special format features. When very wide-screen Cinerama was introduced in 1952’s “This Is Cinerama,” the film – which featured a dizzying rollercoaster ride – quickly became the third-biggest-grossing movie ever in the U.S. market. Ironically, it wasn’t simply the process that captured the public’s imagination, since the majority of ticket sales were generated from non-Cinerama sites.
Two more Cinerama films followed and all three were among the top 20 B.O. hits of the decade.
Proving more commercially potent is the Imax process, again utilizing a large screen. The roughly 120 worldwide sites now have a considerable repertoire to call upon, including a Rolling Stones concert film. Brad Wexler of Imax says the company’s future efforts will lean toward films with broader appeal rather than its traditional niche travelogue and outer space fare. Its first drama, the 40-minute “Wings of Courage,” opens next month.
The once-popular genre has all but disappeared from movie houses as docus have gained popularity on television. Travelogues and nature studies are plentiful on PBS and are an around-the-clock staple of cable’s Discovery and Learning Channel. The latter two webs recently announced a venture to distribute some of their product theatrically (see story, page 1).
Maverick documentarians, including ski pic master Warren Miller, continue to mine a niche using direct marketing and four-walling theaters. (Miller annually produces a ski film, with the next titled “Endless Winter.”)
Though concert films continue to pop up theatrically, their frequency has decreased. Pay-cable outlets have usurped movies’ exclusivity at presenting frank visual and verbal materials.
Network TV has also helped kill the fact-based investigative pieces using dramatic reconstruction. Sunn Classics and Taft Entertainment thrived on such epics as “In Search of Noah’s Ark” in the 1970s. But top-rated broadcast fare like “Rescue 911” and “Top Cops” has virtually killed the theatrical auds for that particular doc genre. The acclaimed “The Thin Blue Line” is about the only recent doc to use the form with financial success.
In the broad history of the theatrical documentary, the most popular films haven’t been the critical favorites. Festival nods, Oscars and other honors have only had modest impact on box office – mostly, such kudos have benefited a pic in non-theatrical venues. Oscars, even nominations, have provided a validation for documentarians that’s often eased the way for subsequent projects and allowed a few filmmakers to shift gears with forays into fiction filmmaking.
Ironically, it took the exclusion of “Hoop Dreams” from the Oscar ballot to fuel unprecedented media interest in nonfiction pix. Critics have lambasted the Academy’s nominating process.
Amid the current furor, very little has been written about the nominees. It’s largely forgotten that the civil rights-themed “Freedom on My Mind” won as best documentary at the Sundance fest in 1994, while “Hoop” was given the audience prize. “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter” was in competition this year at Sundance and “Maya Lin: a Strong Clear Vision” is a recent International Documentary Assn. winner.
Doc screening committee chairman Walter Shenson stands by the group’s selections and dismisses allegations that there’s a mindset against popular pictures. “The films are screened, we have a discussion session prior to balloting and each member votes his conscience,” said Shenson.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences president Arthur Hiller has called for a study of doc procedures that will commence post-Oscar.
Concerns about group homogeneity have also come to the fore since an article by longtime doc member Mitchell Block appeared in International Documentary mag. Written prior to Oscar announcements, he professed wonderment that “Hoop Dreams” had become the “anointed best nonfiction film” by movie critics. He said like “Roger & Me” – another recent famous absentee – there would be similar outrage to it not appearing on the ballot.
Block’s intuition wasn’t based on viewing the 64 entries submitted in 1994 to the committee. He stepped down because he was distributing “D-Day Remembered,” which was submitted for consideration. But even in absentia, his gut response was on target.