We were out on the road last week at film festivals in Maine and New York (more on that in a later post) during what seemed like a pretty momentous week on the indie film landscape. And on Sunday night we were without wireless in the New York countryside, so apologies for delivering The Monday Brief a day late.
We start, naturally, with Michael Moore and his latest, CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, which expanded from its successful limited engagement in New York and Los Angeles to nearly 1000 theaters, and true to his reputation as the world’s foremost documentarian, Moore scored pretty big in wide release, taking in over $4.4 million for the weekend. In doing so, CAPITALISM becomes the third biggest nonfiction of the year (surpassing FOOD, INC. and SEPTEMBER ISSUE and lagging only Disney’s EARTH and JONAS BROTHERS 3D).
But with a per screen average of just under $5K (compared to SICKO's opening weekend average of $10K+, on half the screens), CAPITALISM will need strong word-of-mouth and a solid second weekend hold to match the $20M+ total box office take of his three most successful docs.
Still, while CAPITALISM's numbers may be modest for Moore, they still rank as highly successful for your average nonfiction film.
CAPITALISM was not the weekend’s only success story. Kristopher Belman’s MORE THAN A GAME, retelling the historic high school basketball season of a team that would include future NBA all-star LeBron James, had one of the top doc debuts of the year. It took in an average of $13K on 14 screens for an opening weekend cume of $182K, putting it just shy of the top 20 docs of the year.
And RJ Cutler’s THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE had another fine weekend in wide release, grossing $220K on 104 screens to bring its total to just shy of $3M.
But while those three films were drawing folks to theaters this weekend, another film – just as was the case last week – was perhaps the week’s most talked about documentary: Marina Zenovich’s ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED continued to be in the news in the wake of Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland on 30-year old rape charges in the U.S.
As celebrities and filmmakers were lending their names to petitions to release Polanski (and in some cases were minimizing the seriousness of the charges against him), another actor in the Polanski case, former LA prosecutor David Wells came forward to say that he had lied to Zenovich in the film when he said that he’d advised Judge Laurence Rittenband to throw the book at Polanski. Wells’ admission had been central to Polanski’s lawyers’ recent arguments for dismissal.
Wells’ retraction was bizarre and difficult to believe on its face – he gave the scoop to another former LA prosecutor, the much-maligned OJ Simpson trial figure Marcia Clark, and it came strangely timed to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s decision to capture Polanski and attempt to extradite him to the U.S. But that didn't stop numerous outlets from claiming that Wells "admitted he lied" (why should we believe him now?) or for some to crow, as Clark's piece in the Daily Beast did, that Polanski had lost his "alibi" (how exactly Wells' story in the film was an "alibi" rather than evidence of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct is something I can't quite understand).
In fact, the Wells story seemed to give credence to a theory that was only speculation in the immediate aftermath of Polanski’s arrest – that Zenovich’s film, with its tales of corruption and incompetence in the LA DA’s office – had embarrassed them into action. Previously, it was speculated, the DA hoped the Polanski matter would just go away, but Zenovich, who just weeks ago won two Primetime Emmy’s for the film, had made it impossible for the DA to remain inactive. Why else would Wells – who is mostly a minor figure in WANTED AND DESIRED – suddenly claim that he had intentionally lied to Zenovich, particularly with the absurd claim that he had been told that “the film would not be seen in the U.S.”.
Zenovich, who is at work on a Polanski follow-up, issued a statement from Zurich refuting Wells’ claims to Clark:
"I am perplexed by the timing of David Wells’ statement to the press that he lied in his interview with me for the documentary :
WANTED AND DESIRED. Since June of 2008, the film has been quite
visible on U.S. television via HBO, in theaters and on DVD, so it is
odd that David Wells has not brought this issue to my attention before.
For the record, on the day I filmed Mr. Wells at the Malibu Courthouse, February 11, 2005, he gave me a one-hour interview. He signed a release like all my other interviewees, giving me permission to use his interview in the documentary worldwide. At no time did I tell him that the film would not air in the United States.
Mr. Wells was always friendly and open with me. At no point in the four years since our interview has he ever raised any issues about its content. In fact, in a July 2008 story in The New York Times, Mr. Wells corroborated the account of events that he gave in my film.
I am astonished that he has now changed his story. It is a sad day for documentary filmmakers when something like this happens."
If one allows one’s mind to spiral out (as one might when they are handed a glass of whiskey in a house in Maine at 1 in the morning), one begins to wonder what a court trial involving Polanski might look like. Does Wells take the stand? Does he again say that he lied to Zenovich? What else exists in that interview that might undermine or (less likely) support his claims? Did Zenovich get a second source to confirm Wells’ claim that he talked to the judge? Did she need to? Would a “journalist” get a second source?
Zenovich’s statement that this is a “sad day for filmmakers” underscores something that we don’t often think about. We trust our subjects – perhaps occasionally to our peril – to tell us the truth. What if they don’t? What if they retract their statements at a later date?
With all the impassioned arguments that surround the Polanski case (we’ll get to that in a moment), it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a fascinating case study playing out before us. Moderators at the DocuLink listserv – perhaps so scarred by recent heated discussions over a conservative film about global warming – tried to shut down any discussion of the case and the role Zenovich’s film was playing in it, a short-sighted move at best. WANTED AND DESIRED is at the heart of what is happening with the Polanski story – it is one of the most interesting cases of cause and effect that we’ve seen in the doc world in some time and should be studied closely by all of us, no matter our opinion on the case against Polanski.
In spite of all this, one couldn’t help but be surprised/turned off by the high profile list of names who seemed to rally to Polanski’s defense during the week, seemingly without remembering the details of Polanski’s crime. As LA Times’ columnist Steve Lopez detailed in a blistering column, the fact remains that Polanski raped – vaginally and anally – a 13-year old girl after first drugging her. One can argue about Polanski’s mental state (having recently had his wife and unborn child brutally murdered), one can condemn the judge in the case for malfeasance and one can laud Zenovich for her impressive, stylish and taut journalistic recalling of the case.
One can even argue that had the judge (and likely Wells) not played around with the law thirty years ago, the case would have been decided and Polanski would have served his time.
But one cannot argue with – and should not forget – the facts of what Polanski did.
Much more on Polanski, Zenovich, the case and the film elsewhere, including Jason Guerrasio at Filmmaker Magazine blog, who digs up comments made by Zenovich heading into last year's Sundance film festival, LA Times' Patrick Goldstein on the theory that WANTED spurred the D.A.'s office to arrest Polanski and the NY Times' Michael Cieply, who revisits the original probationary report (featured in the documentary) that recommended no additional jail time for Polanski. Finally, David Poland responds to Zenovich's statement.
Meanwhile, the fall festival tour continues in full flower, with the 5th annual Camden International Film Festival and the 10th annual Woodstock Film Festival wrapping up Sunday. Camden jurors gave the top prize to Jean-Pierre Duret and Andrea Santana's BECAUSE WE WERE BORN, while the folks in Woodstock honored Jenna Rocher's JUNIOR with Best Documentary, GARBAGE DREAMS for the Editing prize and THOSE WHO REMAIN for the Cinematography award. Pamela Cohn has more about Camden at Still in Motion, while indieWIRE scoops up the Woodstock remains. More from us on those fests shortly.
Yesterday, the upcoming Sheffield Doc/Fest unveiled its titles for next month’s festival. Among the notable titles heading to the UK: VIDEOCRACY, SNOWBLIND, OCTOBER COUNTRY, 21 BELOW, WINNEBAGO MAN, BEST WORST MOVIE and many others. Next up - announcements for CPH and IDFA.
Must reads - more about the crisis in indie film: Eugene Hernandez remembers when Miramax and independent film were synonymous. Anne Thompson wonders why Searchlight and Focus can't play the buying game like Sony Pictures Classics does. Ted Hope posts his Woodstock Fest acceptance speech (for the Trailblazer Award) - much more on that shortly.