For the second time in a month,
four five (see note below) high-profile documentaries launched in theaters this weekend, and for the second time in a month, at least one major film by a well-known (primarily narrative) director is essentially DOA, leading, once again, to pronouncements that the entire nonfiction genre has met its proverbial Waterloo at the box office.
Four weeks ago, the failure of Tony Kaye's LAKE OF FIRE, a nearly three-hour, black-and-white, graphic film about the issue of abortion in the 1990s, had prognosticators scratching their heads. This week, there are sure to be fingers pointed at Jonathan Demme's JIMMY CARTER MAN FROM PLAINS, which had an equally weak opening, although at more theaters.
Indeed, just as he did earlier this month, MCN's Leonard Klady has pronounced that the weekend results prove his oft-stated theory that there are just too many documentaries in release:
"(T)he bloom is definitely off the rose for documentaries. Or, one could argue that the industry has effectively killed the layer of the golden egg with too many non-fiction movies (this weekend both JIMMY CARTER and HOW TO COOK YOUR LIFE) that cannot sustain even a niche crowd at the multiplex."
Three weeks ago, Klady looked at the field and came to a similar conclusion:
"The frame's other non-fiction debuts were also on the soft side and largely confirmed industry fears that the marketplace satiation of documentaries has diminished the alternative potency that existed just a few seasons back. One could only ascribe fair returns for MY KID COULD PAINT THAT and KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON and one could only wonder why high media interest in the abortion issue didn't elevate LAKE OF FIRE's box office above its tepid single screen box office of $2,330."
One must note that Klady's estimates both this weekend and three weeks ago failed to include the highest grossing doc of the frame - FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO then, which has since proven to be one of the most solid nonfiction releases this fall, and PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG this weekend, which had a great debut on a single screen at NY's IFC Center. Further, Klady's estimates in some cases were low and were not subsequently corrected when actual figures came in. For example, he was off by nearly $1000 on ABOUT A SON and almost as much on MY KID. In addition, he failed to take into account that ABOUT A SON debuted in NY on the previous Wednesday, which added another $5K to the film's total gross by the end of its opening weekend.
But excusing Klady's lapses, his question remains. Is oversaturation causing the great Doc Depression of 2007?
First, one must ask whether a Doc Depression even exists. Anthony Kaufman argued back in August for Variety that it did:
"Compare the current landscape to two years ago when at least eight docs achieved multimillion-dollar status (from "March of the Penguins" all the way to "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill"), and you have what could be called a temporary documentary recession."
It's true that this year just one film - Michael Moore's SICKO - is a multimillion-dollar success - and just two others have made a million - NO END IN SIGHT and IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON. And unless something else catches fire, that's likely to be the end of it. You'd have to go back to 2001 to find three or fewer nonfiction films making more than a million dollars. The peak was 2004, when 11 films did it.
At the time (all the way back in those halcyon days of August), Kaufman argued that better times may lie ahead:
"(T)he doc depression may very well see an upswing shortly. Though Paramount Vantage's "Arctic Tale" tanked, Magnolia's Iraqumentary "No End in Sight" opened strongly, and this fall a number of high-profile nonfiction films will hit the market. Titles include ThinkFilm's "In the Shadow of the Moon," Picturehouse's "The King of Kong," Sony Picture Classics' "My Kid Could Paint That," WIP's "The 11th Hour," Magnolia Pictures' "Terror's Advocate" and Sundance doc winner "Manda Bala," which is benefiting from an aggressive rollout from City Lights Pictures' new distribution arm."
And, in fact, the end of August seemed to show that things were looking up as four straight films - MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET), THE KING OF KONG, THE 11TH HOUR and DEEP WATER all opened to an average of more than $10,000 per screen. But all that was forgotten when IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON seemed to under-perform when it was released come September. And by the beginning of October, Kaufman was seeing things less optimistically:
"Over the weekend, Sony Classics' extremely well reviewed "My Kid Could Paint That" (89% on Rotten Tomatoes) earned $28,300 over the weekend, which is great for a documentary opening, but not so hot, considering it went out in seven theaters for a per-venue average of $4,042. If the film has the elbow room to stay in theaters and build word-of-mouth, it's still got a chance. But I'm not so sure that's possible much these days. Similarly, "Lake of Fire" -- Tony Kaye's abortion-doc "masterpiece" (a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes) -- grossed just $3,000 at the Film Forum on its opening weekend.
While "In the Shadow of the Moon" has now reached close to $800,000 after five weeks in release, it also seems to be stalling, with a mere $1,509 per-theater average. At this rate, it's going to take a long time for ThinkFilm to recoup its $2-3 million committment on the film. And if a crowd-pleasing story of soaring American astronauts fighting for dominance in the international space race can't turn the tide for docs, I'm not sure what will."
Alright, so fewer films are becoming big hits and some films with high expectations are posting underwhelming numbers. Perhaps there is a doc depression.
Except wait a minute, according to Variety Friday, everybody's got troubles - even big studios and those pesky narrative films:
"After the biggest summer on record, Hollywood dropped the ball in the fall. Through Oct. 21, domestic box office is 6% behind last year, with the lowest total ($785.7 million) since 2001, according to Rentrak.
The main culprit: The studios' big films failed to score. DreamWorks' "The Heartbreak Kid," Universal's "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" and DreamWorks' "Things We Lost in the Fire" are among the titles that underperformed.
But another key factor is the corporate takeover of the niche world. For years, rival studios have dreamed of emulating the Fox Searchlight model, with an arm that would release "quality" films. But this fall, many hierarchs have supervised the launches of these pics, trying to apply mainstream strategies to niche films."
Amongst the culprits, according to Variety:
"They're releasing too many similar films in too short a corridor. During summer, studios carefully study rivals' releases and avoid conflicts. This fall, audiences were given little range, with crime dramas ("We Own the Night," "Eastern Promises," "Gone Baby Gone," "The Brave One"), family dramas ("Things We Lost in the Fire," "Reservation Road"), Iraq-themed dramas ("In the Valley of Elah," "Rendition") and miscellaneous dramas ("Sleuth," "The Jane Austen Book Club," "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford")."
"By emulating the summer strategy of launching a new title every few weeks, studio congloms ignore the fact that specialty pics need time to build word of mouth. So films that are performing fine ("Into the Wild," "Lars and the Real Girl," for example) have to fight for screens as a new crop of films opens every week."
So, in addition to fighting for screen space amongst other docs (and even docs that are "technically" in release but are screening to empty theaters in order to qualify for the Oscars under this year's now-rejected roll-out requirements), nonfiction films are competing amongst some of the biggest indie/art house films of the year. Instead of opening in the first half of the year (when fewer high profile docs were released than have been this month), everyone decided to squeeze into the last few months of the year, just when all the narrative films are hoping to declare themselves as Oscar bait. But is that a symptom of nonfiction oversaturation, as Klady implies? Or is everybody suffering?
Further, these depression diagnoses seem to always reflect that a big ticket item - like the Sundance big selling MY KID COULD PAINT THAT or IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON, both of which had big P&A budgets behind them - is under-performing. One of the big stories of docs this year is that a handful of award-winning films that were not picked up any of the major indies are quietly establishing themselves in the top markets without a large outlay of marketing or advertising costs.
Flashback to Kaufman's Variety article in August:
"All the titles will be battling it out for what's ultimately a small theatrical pie, but the trick to making a doc work, says City Lights' Danny Fisher, is to "play by the rules that don't cost the prints and adverting that you associate with a commercial release. It's word of mouth; it's grassroots.""
And lo and behold, City Lights' grassroots plan for Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET) has netted that film more than $115,000. Ditto for International Film Circuit's release of THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK, which just passed $125,000. First Run's successful release of FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO will move that film into the top 15 docs this year after this weekend. And our own KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON is in line to become the biggest film in Balcony Releasing's history, all on a fraction of the P&A budgets seen by most indies.** Last but certainly not least, there is HELVETICA, self-distributed by Gary Hustwit and currently one of the top 15 docs of the year.
In the recent issue of the IDA's Documentary Magazine, HBO's Sheila Nevins sounded off on the topic of theatrical releases vs. television - and the friction that sometimes is raised when a filmmaker with an HBO deal believes that the film has a theatrical life inside it:
NEVINS: I think the war is over beween TV and theatrical docs.
IDA: Why do say that?
NEVINS: This year proved that. SPELLBOUND, FAHRENHEIT 9/11, SUPER SIZE ME, WINGED MIGRATION - they all fell into the laps of theatrical within an 18-month period. Everyone said, "Documentaries, they're so hot, they make money." And every producer wanted his documentary to be theatrica and everyone thought his documentary could make money. And look at last year: you had AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. Period.
Maybe the happy home for documentaries is the very short theatrical release with no expectations, then nestled into people's living rooms by one of the means of transmission, whether internet or downloading or HBO.
Aside from quibbling with a few points (2006 had seven films that made at least a million dollars and two - including WORDPLAY - were multimillion dollar successes, and certainly the means of transmission should include DVD, Netflix and the like), Nevins raises some interesting points.
Maybe grassroots releases, like those of the films named above, will or should become more of the norm, with no expectations except getting a film out to as many theatres as possible. And if it connects, mazel tov.
But if that's the case does that mean that the only films put out by a Sony Pictures Classics or a LionsGate or a Weinstein Co. will be ones with a name like Michael Moore or Errol Morris or Jonathan Demme on it? Will you only be able to get a decent P&A budget if you've already had your SUPER SIZE ME?
Already, some of the year's most acclaimed films and filmmakers have had to scrap together money to build a grassroots theatrical release, while films by Tony Kaye and Barbet Schroeder and Demme have gone into the marketplace with much fanfare but little return. Distributors, already scared shitless that they don't know what will work and what won't, can only look at the across the board disappointments and get even more gun-shy. If MANDA BALA or BILLY THE KID or THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK are fighting to get their films into theatres, what hope is there for the filmmaker who didn't win Sundance or SXSW or Los Angeles or BritDoc?
Come to think of it, is this the first year in how long that none of the documentary winners of the year's major film festival prizes - save Alex Gibney's TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE - were picked up by a major distributor?
And while we're asking big questions, what happens in 2008, when new documentary films from Errol Morris and Morgan Spurlock and Martin Scorsese are expected? What happens when the Larry Charles/Bill Maher religion doc hits theatres? What about the aforementioned TAXI, a film from a recent Oscar nominee that is already drawing talk of a nomination?
What if, in the midst of that glut, there's 2, 3 or even 4 million-dollar films? Is 2007 just a blip? Was the depression nothing but a case of the glums?
One thing's for sure, filmmakers and distributors should be thinking twice about going up against studio's Oscar hopefuls. Do you really want to be opening up against THE DARJEELING LIMITED and INTO THE WILD? Considering that all of the films noted by Nevins were released in the spring and summer, perhaps that's the fertile time for docs. Be the only thinking man's option, you can hear someone saying.
Ultimately, the market may be oversaturated, but it's not a doc-only affair. And if films aren't meeting expectations, perhaps our expectations have gotten out of whack. Or maybe we're only looking at the slow-selling big ticket items, while the solid, grassroots indies are the real deal.
*Update - Tuesday, October 30 - When I wrote this piece, I had yet to see the returns for the new documentary LAGERFELD CONFIDENTIAL, which opened Friday at the Film Forum and nearly matched the PETE SEEGER doc for per screen average. That makes five high-profile docs debuting in theaters this weekend. See next post for full box office figures from the weekend.
**Clarification - ABOUT A SON did not become the biggest grossing film in Balcony's history, nor the biggest release for Balcony in 2007. That would go to KING CORN, which ended up with $105K, nearly $20K more than ABOUT A SON. SIR, NO SIR remains Balcony's top grosser at $117K.