Yes, Surprised: Rare occurrence Low costs Getting hooked

Rush to acquire documentaries; ‘Survivor’ generation drives hits
At Telluride Film Festival, hit mainstream movies like Lost in Translation made their world premieres. But it was a documentary about former United States Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, called The Fog of War, that had crowds lining up all along the street.
At the Toronto International Film Festival this year, the two runners-up for the People’s Choice Award — picked from more than 300 foreign-language, Hollywood and independent films — were documentaries.
And at the New York Film Festival this month, the quickest sellout wasn’t the critically acclaimed, star-studded Mystic River. It was an unknown German documentary called Stalingrad, about a World War II battle.
“It was the biggest surprise to me in 16 years working at the festival,” says Richard Peña, chair of the festival selection committee and program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “We had 150 extra ticket orders for Stalingrad. We had to add another screening.”
Documentaries are suddenly in vogue, after years of being relegated to Sunday evenings on PBS or the Discovery Channel. Thanks to the influx of television shows like Survivor, audiences have grown more comfortable with real-life stories and have been flocking to cinemas for nonfiction of a more intellectual sort. Box-office grosses for documentaries now rival those for successful indie films.
Stunned by the art form’s newfound popularity and profitability, independent film companies are paying more attention to documentaries than ever before, rushing to acquire them at film festivals for distribution and even producing them in-house.
“Documentary films used to be treated as second-class citizens by the press, the ancillary market and the public,” says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “Now they’re becoming more mainstream and more popular.”
In the midst of the summer popcorn movies, three theatrically released documentaries brought in significant grosses at the box office and received significant press attention. Capturing the Friedmans, a story about a father and son charged with sexual abuse, made $3.1 million domestically; Spellbound, which follows a national spelling bee, grossed nearly $6 million; and Winged Migration, a documentary about birds with no people in it, raked in more than $10 million.
Rare occurrence
“Having three documentaries in the marketplace simultaneously, each of which was successful, is something that none of us who distribute indie films can recall ever happening before,” says Mark Urman, head of distribution for ThinkFilm, which released Spellbound. “These films, following not long after the success of Bowling for Columbine, made us bolder and more encouraged to undertake documentaries as commercial ventures.”
Despite the sudden interest from distributors, documentary filmmakers say it is still a struggle to work in the field. While there are more distribution venues than ever before, more documentaries are being made because filmmakers are using new inexpensive digital cameras.
“It’s a buyer’s market,” says Doug Hawes-Davis, a filmmaker who recently founded a documentary film festival that is scheduled to take place in February in Montana. “Most of the distributors won’t look at anything that comes unsolicited.”
If the newfound popularity of documentaries continues, that may change, however. Most documentaries are much cheaper to produce than feature films, making them prized acquisitions for distributors. Sony Pictures Classics paid only $600,000 for the rights to release Winged Migration in all the English-speaking countries. Last year, the company bought the skateboarding documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys for $250,000. It made $3 million at the box office and is doing very well on video and DVD.
Marketing costs are generally cheaper, as well. Documentaries tend to rely more on critics’ reviews and word of mouth than on advertising. Publicity costs are also lower, because the films have no stars. Lives of Altar Boys last year. The company had to fly her, her nanny and her publicist around the country, providing hair and makeup professionals and other perks along the way. For the documentary Spellbound, ThinkFilm simply had the kids driven to New York by their parents for an appearance on The Today Show.
“Of the $6 million I’m grossing with Spellbound,” Mr. Urman says, “a lot more of it goes into my pocket.”
Getting hooked
Mr. Urman says he had to be dragged to the screening of Spellbound last year because he was so skeptical of documentaries’ commercial value. But 10 minutes into the movie, he was hooked, and he quickly made the filmmakers an offer. Since then, Mr. Urman has acquired three more documentaries.
Others are jumping in, too. Matt Brodlie, senior vice president of acquisitions at Miramax Films, says that, for the first time, he is going to every documentary screening at the major film festivals and paying very close attention to that segment of the market. Sony Pictures Classics has always distributed documentaries, but the category’s recent success led it to produce its first nonfiction film, The Fog of War.
Ironically, filmmakers and executives credit the antithesis of what they are trying to create as the reason for documentaries’ recent success. The influx of reality shows has made documentaries seem more familiar to the general public, they say.
“Even though Temptation Island and these fine films that go into theaters have little in common, it is still significant that millions of Americans are sitting home on their couches and watching something that doesn’t have stars and fancy sets and costumes,” Mr. Urman says. “It has made it easier for people to walk into a movie theater and relate to eight children in a spelling bee as heroes.”


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