In honor of tonight’s Cinema Eye nonfiction awards, I’ve been thinking about “Taxi to the Dark Side,” the recent Academy Award winner for Best Documentary. You don’t get bigger honors than the Oscar, but how much did the golden statuette help nudge audiences to seek out this sobering indictment of America’s torture practices? Not much: Post-win weekend, the film’s per-screen average was just $950 (in 19 venues); in its subsequent two weekends in release, the film earned another $25,000, not a huge fraction of its total $173,000 sales-to-date. Not to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the film’s total gross marks the worst performance for an Oscar-doc winner in six years.
As far as I can tell, 2001 Oscar-winner “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, never got much of a theatrical release, so based on this year’s results, we’re doing some serious backtracking. The date is an important one, because it’s the year that docs — propelled by post-9/11 disillusionment or a greater interest in politics or the studio divisions’ pumped-up marketing of nonfiction — entered the mainstream. If you look at the Oscar winners from 2002-2007, they all made multiple millions. One would have thought that the Oscar really could have made a difference for “Taxi,” but the data shows just how far we’ve come from those brief glory days.