Auds love reality

Nonfiction pix owe success to compelling stories

Radically different from the reality programming that saturates television, nonfiction entertainment of a more upscale breed is making an impact on the big screen.

Coming on the heels of “Bowling For Columbine,” Michael Moore’s $21.4 million-grossing examination of gun culture, a number of documentaries are pulling significant audiences and forcing distributors to sit up and take notice.

  • Sony Pictures Classics has hit $3 million in North America with the chronicle of the flight paths of birds, “Winged Migration,” despite having penetrated only 50% of the national marketplace in a slow rollout.

  • ThinkFilm predicts a final gross as high as $3 million with “Spellbound,” which traces the backstories of tyke contestants in the National Spelling Bee.

  • Magnolia Pictures is making a conservative estimate of $2.5 million for “Capturing the Friedmans,” the story of a Long Island middle-class Jewish family embroiled in a sex-crime scandal.

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“Documentary used to be a dirty word,” said Sheila Nevins, executive VP of original programming at HBO, which cofinances many of the top docs. “It’s not a dirty word anymore. ‘Hoop Dreams,’ ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ ‘Crumb’ and certainly Michael Moore’s films changed the perception of what a documentary is.

“But they each were needles in a haystack. Now I think they’ll be more frequent because the economic success of ‘Columbine’ has made distributors more willing to take chances.”

While those grosses might seem like small potatoes by studio release standards, they represent the kind of numbers only a select handful of non-narrative features have posted in the past.

They also compare favorably with the majority of narrative indie pickups, many of which struggle to top the $2.5 million mark; and they certainly overshadow most foreign-language narrative releases.

“As far as the audience a documentary can generate, the magic number unfortunately still seems to be a million bucks,” said United Artists president Bingham Ray, who released “Columbine.” “But if you cross that threshold and break out of the ghetto, anything is possible after that.”

Mark Urman, head of distribution at ThinkFilm, adds: “When a frontier has been crossed to the extent it was by ‘Columbine,’ where it’s three times the number of people who saw the next most successful documentary, you’re creating a whole new genre that people never dared to sample before.”

In addition to almost across-the-board four-star reviews and editorial comment, the current docu-crop is attracting unprecedented media attention.

Smartly timed by ThinkFilm to coincide with this year’s National Spelling Bee, the media profile of “Spellbound” exploded from national newscasts to “Today,” “Oprah” and late-night yakkers, while the much talked-about “Friedmans” has drawn coverage in People magazine, on “48 Hours” and “The Howard Stern Show.”

“The reason these films are working is that they’re simply the best films out there right now,” offered SPC co-president Michael Barker. “These documentaries have something fresh and new that people want from the independent world — and that just happens to be coming from documentary makers right now.”

Ray adds: “You could see it coming at the various festivals they emerged from, because in some of those festivals these were among the best films there, fiction or non-fiction. They captivated audiences and the media and were able to get a lot of publicity and get out there, and not in an expensive studio-like manner.”

This season’s docu hits appear poised to play through the summer; the fall-through-Christmas pipeline is packed with more quality nonfiction features that look to have solid theatrical potential.

SPC goes out Dec. 26 with documentarian Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” an inside view of American history by way of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the Cannes fest’s critical standouts.

On Nov. 12, New Yorker Films bows “My Architect,” Nathaniel Kahn’s personal journey to investigate the work and secretive triple family life of his late father Louis Kahn; and on Sept. 5 launches Gallic crowd-pleaser “To Be and To Have,” which explores a year in the life of a dozen tots in a rural schoolhouse. The pic grossed a phenomenal $8.8 million in France.

On Oct. 8, ThinkFilm boards “Bus 174,” a Brazilian doc about a tragic 2000 Rio de Janeiro hijacking that picked up fest awards at Rio, Rotterdam and Miami and was a hot buzz title at Sundance.

Similarly to the company’s Fine Line deal on “American Splendor” — itself a docu-fiction hybrid — HBO pacted with distribs this year on joint theatrical presentations of “Friedmans” and “Spellbound,” as well as “Bus 174” and “My Architect.”

Nevins sees the increased audience for documentary as evidence of a heightened appetite for real human drama.

“I think September 11 changed the world,” she said. “It’s made people more interested in the stories reality has to tell because suddenly we realized there were 3,000 stories that day that were important.”Many pundits see a link between the increased acceptance of theatrical auds for non-fiction and the reign of reality on the small screen.

“The complete submission of television to reality programming has made the whole consciousness of the greater public more accepting of real life in some cases than of fictional life,” says Ray.

Another salient factor is the story-driven quality of the new docs. With the exception of “Winged Migration,” which belongs to a more orthodox nature-documentary form (albeit updated via cutting-edge technology), these films are powered by narrative motors no less potent than the average dramatic feature.

The digital revolution has also been a key factor, enabling documakers to assemble the kind of longform stories that take time to gel, often dramatically changing the filmmaking process.

“Telling most documentary stories requires shooting over a long period of time, and economically, that makes it very difficult,” reflected Ira Deutchman, who acquired and launched “Hoop Dreams” during his tenure as Fine Line Features president. “Digital technology means you can show up with a tiny digital camera, no lights, no sound and just start shooting.”

Perhaps the final distributor incentive for documentaries is thriftiness. Considerably lower production budgets generally mean lower acquisition prices and the absence of high-maintenance talent in most cases, makes the marketing trail more economical.

“You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars as opposed to millions,” notes Urman, “so the filmmakers have fewer economic sensitivities. You don’t have to take big ads and you don’t have to fly talent all over the place. Every step of the way, your overhead is lower.”

Barker deadpans, “I don’t have a lot of talent on ‘Winged Migration.’ I’m not going to fly birds in.”

SPC tapped the National Audubon Society and other birdwatching groups to target the core audience on the flight flick, while New Yorker will milk teachers’ associations and educational orgs to spread word of mouth on “To Be and To Have,” repeating the French distrib’s strategy that yielded almost 1.8 million admissions.

Docus also can get a marketing leg up from specialized venues like New York’s Film Forum or the Nuart in Los Angeles, which have their own mailing lists and promotional infrastructures and a built-in audience for quality non-fiction product. These sites can prove a solid base from which to expand to a wider audience.

(Alison James in Paris contributed to this report.)