Key documentaries underperform in ’07

Several high-profile films failed to reach audiences

Recent feature documentary races were underpinned by surprise theatrical success, with box office winners such as “Bowling for Columbine” ($22 million), “March of the Penguins” ($77 million) and “An Inconvenient Truth” ($24 million) boasting returns that would be considered respectable in any category.

But this year’s documentary feature race touts only one film, Michael Moore’s invasive procedure on the state of U.S. health care, “Sicko,” with any kind of real theatrical take to speak of (the Lionsgate release grossed just over $24 million domestically).

Charles Ferguson’s Magnolia-released “No End in Sight” — a blow-by-blow account of the run-up to the Iraqi insurgency — is the No. 2-earning docu this year behind “Sicko,” despite taking in only $1.4 million. Meanwhile, Ron Howard-endorsed astronaut retrospective, “In the Shadow of the Moon,” took in just under $1.1 million, despite lunar-level expectations from distrib ThinkFilm.

Indeed, a whole range of well-backed contenders failed to eclipse the $1 million mark theatrically this year. That list includes Dan Klores’ “Crazy Love,” a Magnolia release chronicling the infamously volatile coupling of Linda Riss and Burt Pugach, which has already been tapped for Intl. Documentary Assn. honors; ThinkFilm’s “Lake of Fire,” an exploration of the abortion debate helmed by once-radioactive commercial director Tony Kaye; and Magnolia’s “Terror’s Advocate,” Barbet Schroeder’s look at war-criminal lawyer Jacques Verges.

“There were a number of documentary films that had extraordinary awareness this year, but people were shocked by the (low) box office performance,” says one vet of the docu race.

Docu segment’s weightier fare might be succumbing to a burgeoning fall glut of fictional awards contenders with hard-hitting topical subjects.

One takeaway from this year: The 2007 docu feature race is the last occurring under the Academy’s old exhibition rules, which require at least 14 theatrical runs in 10 states beyond the mandated seven-day Los Angeles and New York runs. The multistate requirement was recently scrapped.

FAST FACTS

Doc branch governors: Michael Apted, Rob Epstein, Richard Pearce

Voting members: approx. 140

Short list: due Nov. 15

The rules: Eligible nonfiction films must be less than two years old and have completed their qualifying run between Sept. 1, 2006, and Aug. 31, 2007. Exhibition mandate calls for separate seven-day commercial theatrical runs in both L.A. County and Manhattan. Required this year were another 14 showings spread across 10 states outside of New York and California.

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