As much as I adore my pal Agnes Varnum, I don't know what to make of her current piece at indieWIRE entitled "Theatrical Docs Down, But Not Out". While the full article is more of a general summary of various distribution strategies (including a couple of grass-roots releases), it still contains a couple of the "docs are struggling" mantras that make me want to bang my head against a wall.
I know I'm getting all John the Baptist (voice in the wilderness and all that) about it, but facts, as they say, is facts. We're in a great year for docs, with the potential for one of the best years ever - even if we don't have a super extravagent hit a la Michael Moore, Al Gore, Jackass or Penguins.
Agnes reaches back to David Ansen piece in Newsweek (which I responded to at the time) which pointed out disappointing returns for TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE and STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE. But the distinction that few are making is that the disappointments this year has been with a certain strand of documentary. Magnolia's Eammon Bowles hits the nail on the head:
"One of the real issues right now is that people are resisting issue-oriented docs."
Read: Issue docs are struggling but overall docs are viable.
Earlier this week, in another indieWIRE article on the success of MAN ON WIRE, Bowles reiterated this line of thinking:
"I just think that in many ways this plays more like a poetic adventure film than a standard issue doc and for that reason it may have a shot at a larger audience. But let's not write off the doc yet. We've done healthy business with GONZO this summer as well."
This gibes with what Magnolia's Tom Quinn said during a panel at Full Frame earlier this year, even before the sucess of GONZO and WIRE, as I reported then for indieWIRE:
"Quinn reflected that at a similar panel in 2007, he talked about that year's three high profile Sundance acquistions -- Amir Bar-Lev's MY KID COULD PAINT THAT (distributed by Sony Pictures Classics), David Sington's IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (which THINKFilm distributed) and CRAZY LOVE, which Magnolia themselves released. 'Last year I sat on this panel and said, 'we'll see how those films will do,'' Quinn remembered. 'It will either be a boom year or a bust year.' Despite the lack of success (particularly in relation to expectations) of those titles, Quinn sees hopeful signs for this year. 'This year, things are looking a little bit better theatrically. Maybe things are not so bad.'"
Since Magnolia was one of the first to proclaim the great doc depression of 2007 (after CRAZY LOVE underperformed), it seems only a matter of time that someone starts to come around to what we've been shouting from the mountain tops for the past couple months.
So here's a question - when MAN ON WIRE and potentially AMERICAN TEEN start having success in their expansions, how many days until someone declares that "Docs Are Back!"?