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Will weak box office end flock to docs?

Distribs find niche films can't support hefty prices

Despite a significant drop in box office receipts from 2005 to 2006, distributors were all over documentaries earlier this year at Sundance.

Sales reached an all-time high when “In the Shadow of the Moon” and “My Kid Could Paint That” each sold for more than $1.5 million.

Eleven months later, however, both films were overlooked not only by mass auds, but also the Academy’s doc branch.

Only three of the 83 documentary features released over the last year surpassed the $1 million B.O. mark, making the genre’s collective total a dismal $39 million — with the majority of that generated by Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” ($24.5 million domestically), which was a genre anomaly in that it was released on more than 1,100 screens.

Not surprisingly, distributors are rethinking the genre’s theatrical potential and future purchases.

ThinkFilm, one of the most aggressive documentary buyers of late, saw four of the five doc features it released this year selected for the Academy shortlist. The odd doc out was “Moon,” which Think purchased for $2 million.

“It still haunts me,” ThinkFilm’s U.S. distribution prexy Mark Urman says of the pic’s disappointing theatrical performance of just over $1.1 million. “There was such appreciation for this film, but I think at the end of the day, people might have thought, ‘I have seen this before or I can see this on television.’ ”

Fellow Sundance fave “My Kid Could Paint That,” which Sony Classics picked up for $1.8 million, has taken in just $180,000, while Magnolia’s “Crazy Love” did slightly better, grossing $300,000.

Despite “Crazy Love’s” bleak B.O., Magnolia also released “No End in Sight” this year, which took in $1.4 million, making it this year’s second-highest-grossing doc.

Magnolia prexy Eamonn Bowles admits that the pic’s perf was a “shock,” before adding that “there was definitely a Black Friday crash with docs theatrically this year.”

For his part, Roadside Attractions co-head Howard Cohen questions if it was really a crash or just a market correction.

While there have been a number of big revenue-generating doc releases over the last five years — including “Fahrenheit 9/11” ($119 million), “March of the Penguins” ($77 million), “An Inconvenient Truth” ($24 million) and “Super Size Me” ($11.5 million) — Cohen notes that, for the most part, doc audiences are small by nature.

“When there is so much other stuff in the marketplace, I think docs have a hard time going beyond arthouse attendees,” he says. If a documentary is high-quality and gets great reviews, then it does maybe a few million dollars. That’s a pretty high bar if a film has to get raves in order to do any business. But when it comes to docs like ‘Super Size Me’ and ‘Fahrenheit,’ they’re in a different category. They are about populist subjects.”

Urman thinks this year’s theatrical numbers say “more about the audience’s interest in the genre than anything else.”

As a result, Think is going to be “much more selective” at Sundance 2008.

“It can’t just be a good doc or a well-made doc or an interesting doc, it has to be something that is a compulsory theatrical experience,” Urman says.

Although Bowles says it’s highly unlikely Magnolia will pick up another Iraq-themed film, he is hopeful that the doc genre’s meager yearly earnings was an abnormality.

“I don’t think you can come to a conclusion based on this year’s performances,” he asserts. “There were a lot of new players in the game at Sundance 2007. A lot of films got way more money than they ever should have, and it wasn’t just the docs. The thin air, the festival fever, the competitive mindset; no one wants to go home empty-handed. They want to make a big stink.”

TIP SHEET

WHAT: Intl. Documentary Assn. Awards

WHEN: Tonight (6:30-11 p.m.)

WHERE: Directors Guild of America HQ, Hollywood

WATTAGE: Michael Moore, Christine Amanpour

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