Deadline trips up documentary hopefuls

Screening cut-off date impacts B.O., release sked

This year’s documentary Oscar contenders chase a prize made all the more elusive by a tepid docu climate as well as qualifying rules that compromise their ability to do well in the marketplace.

The 2008 crop includes a few box office breakthroughs (“Religulous,” “Man on Wire”) dueling against familiar filmmakers of the form — Errol Morris (“Standard Operating Procedure”) and Werner Herzog (“Encounters at the End of the World”) — with a cluster of smaller indie challengers including “The Order of Myths,” “Trouble the Water” and “I.O.U.S.A.” emerging from the domestic festival circuit.

Perhaps the toughest hurdle for contenders is merely qualifying for consideration. The Academy’s rules require hopefuls to screen for a minimum of one week in Los Angeles County and the borough of Manhattan by Aug. 31.

While the old rule’s mandatory 14-city screening engagement was simplified, docs still had to scramble to book theatrical releases by the Aug. 31 deadline. That glut certainly impacted B.O. results. The deadline also put docs completed at midyear in the difficult position of having to forgo fall’s prestigious festivals unless filmmakers could come up with the funds to mount a two-city qualifying run just prior to heading to fests.

The International Documentary Assn. has made it a bit easier with DocuWeek, a showcase that counts as a qualifying run for a handful of chosen docs (18 features this year) right before the deadline.

Then again, it’s simpler for docs that already have distribution in place. Lionsgate qualified “Religulous” in August, meaning that a moviegoer in New York City or Los Angeles could pay to watch Larry Charles and Bill Maher’s scathing comedic docu two weeks before its “official” world premiere at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

Sony Pictures Classics confronted the decision to qualify the animated Israeli doc “Waltz With Bashir” or have its American premiere last month at the New York Film Festival. With “Bashir” already potentially in the running for animation as well as foreign-language film, SPC co-prexies Tom Bernard and Michael Barker chose the latter.

HBO found itself in the position of having to four-wall its acclaimed Sundance acquisition “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” in March, before the cabler’s premiere run of the film two months later (another Acad rule). There was always a plan for ThinkFilm — which steered “Taxi to the Dark Side” to victory in 2007 — to release “Polanski” after it played on HBO. But ThinkFilm had been buckling under the strain of its liquidity problems, and July’s theatrical run earned just $59,000, despite “Polanski’s” critical plaudits and awards buzz.

Morris’ Iraq doc “Standard Operating Procedure” also fizzled at the box office when it was released last spring. But SPC toppers say the film could still benefit from Morris loyalists and other sympathizers in the Academy’s docu branch. “Maybe the box office isn’t that big, but people who are involved in the particular issues the movie might address may show up and support it,” Bernard says.

Meanwhile, Ryan Krivoshey, director of distribution at Cinema Guild, is banking on the Acad to notice his theatrical commitments to “The Order of Myths,” “The Betrayal” and “The Unforeseen.” “The people voting in the Academy are always big on a true theatrical release,” he notes.

Widely expected to be noticed by the Acad is “Man on Wire,” Magnolia’s $2.7 million grosser about the man who walked on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. And Herzog, whose lauded “Grizzly Man” was left off the docu short list in 2005, could make a stronger showing with his meditation on Antarctic life, “Encounters at the End of the World,” which was released by ThinkFilm.

FAST FACTS

Documentary race

Docu branch members: 146

Branch governors: Michael Apted (chair), Rob Epstein, Richard Pearce

Submission deadline: Sept. 1

Shortlist due: Week of Nov. 17

Qualifying period: Sept. 1, 2007, to Aug. 31, 2008. A film’s one-week-minimum qualifying run must take place in the borough of Manhattan and in Los Angeles County within two years of its completion date.

Voting rules: Shortlist and final nominee selection is open to all docu branch members. Only those members who’ve viewed the final five nominees in a theatrical setting can vote for the final winner.

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