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After last year's high-grossing winner 'Columbine,' several other boffo docus are lining up

When Michael Moore’s 2002 B.O. titan “Bowling for Columbine” picked up a mention and then the Oscar for documentary in March, it seemed like a sea change was under way for nonfiction filmmakers and their distributors: Theatrical success was not necessarily a liability for docs looking to get Academy recognition.

Whether that will again be a trend this kudo season is difficult to predict, in part because many of 2003’s most successful nonfiction pics are ineligible. Two of the top box office documentary draws for 2003, Sony Pictures Classics’ “Winged Migration” (over $10 million) and ThinkFilm’s “Spellbound” (about $6 million), both competed in last year’s race. And, “Columbine” continued to score at the box office, collecting $5 million of its more than $21 million cume this year.

However, among this year’s top docs that are eligible: Artisan’s surfer pic “Step Into Liquid” ($3.5 million), Magnolia’s “Capturing the Friedmans” (more than $3 million), as well as Imax entries: Disney’s James Cameron-helmed 3-D Titanic pic “Ghosts of the Abyss” (about $15 million) and MacGillivray Freeman Films’ “Coral Reef Adventure” ($20-plus million).

Andrew Jarecki’s Sundance winner “Friedmans,” about a family dealing with accusations of child molestation, has received a lot of buzz and critical support, but the subject matter may prove too discomforting for the nominating committee. Last year, Steve James’ critically lauded “Stevie,” which also dealt with sexual abuse of youngsters, was one of the more notable snubs.

This year’s docu hopefuls will face several minor but not insignificant new requirements. In addition to screening for seven consecutive days in a commercial venue in either New York or Los Angeles between Oct. 1, 2002, and Aug. 31, 2003 (the closing date was bumped up a month from last year), pics will have to meet one of two additional criteria: two consecutive commercial playdates in at least four additional cities on or before the day the nominations are announced Jan. 27, or not have any TV or Internet broadcasts for at least nine months following Jan. 27. Proof of theatrical advertising must also be provided.

The new rules represent the latest step by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ documentary branch to make it harder for TV- or homevid-oriented fare to qualify. “Our most important goal is to honor the Academy’s mandate, which is to celebrate theatrical motion pictures,” says filmmaker Arthur Dong, one of three governors on the documentary board. “In the past, we often found that filmmakers were just going for a minimum seven-day run in New York or L.A., but had no intention of ever having a theatrical life for their films, and we wanted to stop that. That’s what the new rules are for.”

As “Spellbound” and “Winged Migration” proved again this year, an Oscar nom is an effective way of launching or prolonging a doc’s theatrical life. Distribs found ways of qualifying hopefuls without really releasing them, then waiting for kudo season. This is accomplished by quietly booking an out-of-the-way theater in New York or L.A. for a week, buying the minimum amount of ad space demanded by the Acad, and then pulling the film immediately.

Such was the strategy used by Sony Pictures Classics for one of this year’s high-profile titles: Errol Morris’ Robert McNamara docu “The Fog of War,” which has already qualified but won’t begin its rollout until Dec. 25. A nomination would be the first ever for Morris, a perennial critical and commercial darling (“Mr. Death,” “The Thin Blue Line,” “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control”) who has been repeatedly snubbed by the Academy (although he did work on last year’s Oscar ceremony).

Other buzzed-about contenders include two ThinkFilm releases: Jonathan Demme’s “The Agronomist,” another qualifier with a 2004 release date, and Jose Padilha’s “Bus 174.”

Another way docs without traditional theatrical runs can become eligible is via the Intl. Documentary Assn.’s InFact showcase, which every year books 10 to 15 films for one-week qualifying runs in L.A. And New York’s Film Forum, a longtime supporter of nonfiction fare, has provided self-distributed docs with a commercial venue that enables them to qualify.

Other well-received qualifiers that may receive attention include: Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s “The Weather Underground,” Nathaniel Kahn’s “My Architect,” Paul Devlin’s “Power Trip” and Carles Bosch and Jose Maria Domenech’s “Balseros.”

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