There’s been fresh talk recently about developments in the theatrical market for documentaries (and, let’s face it, ticket sales are still the best sign of a film’s popularity and penetration into the culture), from Newsweek’s R.I.P. to indieWIRE’s more optimistic outlook. If we’re in the middle of a small nonfiction resurgence (with “American Teen,” “Gonzo,” and “Man on Wire”), it’s hard to tell how significant it is and how long it will last.
After two weeks of major marketing spend by Paramount Vantage, “American Teen” has grossed about a quarter of million dollars in 39 theaters. Back in January, if you remember, “Teen” was the buzzed-about picture at Sundance, with rumored bids skyrocketing to $2.5 million. (According to Variety, Vantage scored the film for $1 million, plus significant P&A committment.) As last year’s releases of “There Will Be Blood” and “Into the Wild” proved, Vantage sure can burn through the marketing dollars. But will it be worth it? After seeing the film recently, I must admit I got all caught up in the various teenage melodramas (charismatic alt-teen Hannah Bailey deserves her own show, or movie, or whatever she wants). But will American consumers buy it? The film’s $4,500 per-venue average suggests the hype may have subsided since Park City, but Vantage isn’t going to give up anytime soon, going out to 50 markets in the coming weeks.
Magnolia Pictures’ releases of “Gonzo,” the Hunter S. Thompson doc, and “Man on Wire,” the ’70s World Trade Center tightrope chronicle, are also doing well, but while “Gonzo” is safely set to cross the $1 million mark, the true test of “Man on Wire”‘s success will be when the distributor expands the film outside of New York this weekend. In its second run in New York, the film remained consistently strong (with another $48,477 in the bank), but outside of the film’s Gotham location, will the story have as much resonance?
One last thought: “Encounters at the End of the World” is Werner Herzog’s second-best documentary grosser behind “Grizzly Man”: Though it probably won’t crack $1 million, it’s still impressive numbers for a fascinating film about man and nature’s limits, and the disconsolate madness of a wayward penguin. For my money, Herzog’s penguin scene — subversive and devastating — is the nonfiction moment of the year.