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December 20, 2005 8:29 AM
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LOOKING BACK AT '05: Despite Challenges, Documentaries Thrive

"March of the Penguins," "Murderball," "Mad Hot Ballroom," and "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill." Photos provided by Warner Independent Pictures, THINKFilm, Paramount Classics and Shadow Distribution.


[EDITORS NOTE: This is the third in a series of 5 articles looking back at some of the notable people, trends and companies of 2005. Additional articles in this series will be published all next week.]



In a flooded marketplace faced with increasing competition from DVDs, pay-per-view television, and shiny new gaming consoles, the film industry was faced with some tough challenges in 2005. As the year wore on and summer finally arrived, the release of each blockbuster was cause for renewed hope that Hollywood would finally save face - but critics complained and grosses waned. The films just weren't connecting. One genre, however, seemed to have a banner year overall, both critically and at the box office, despite a few disappointments.


"This was another year of growth in the documentary arena," says Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical for THINKFilm. "More docs than ever were released theatrically, and more of them did well. Even though the vast majority still remain in a limited-audience ghetto, the same could be said for most indie films, and unlike low-budget fiction fare and foreign language films, docs have gained ground while the other varieties of alternative film have lost ground in the marketplace."


THINKFilm, which released two of the most talked about nonfiction films of the year, "Murderball" by Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro as well as Paul Provenza's "The Aristocrats", provided an unexpected case study in the imperfect science of releasing documentaries. "Murderball", a film about quadriplegic athletes, was hands down one of the highest rated movies of the year, but only took in about $1.5 million domestically, while "The Aristocrats", an essay film about the dirtiest joke in the world, did a surprising $6.3 million at the box office. "It is true that heading into the summer, all of us at Think thought that 'Murderball' would do crossover business and that "The Aristocrats' would be, at best, a cult success," says Urman.


So why do some well-reviewed documentaries connect with the movie-going public and others don't? "'Murderball', in hindsight, clearly struck people as a film that might be painful to watch," says Urman. "No matter how much testimony they heard to the contrary, people felt that they needed something lighter this summer. Thankfully, 'The Aristocrats' fit that bill. Interestingly, most people did not perceive it as taboo, rather they accepted it as fun - not as a provocation and not as a challenge. In the end, with one film, we seem to have overestimated the public, and with the other we underestimated them."


Marilyn Agrelo's "Mad Hot Ballroom" also caused a stir this year, with a box office take of $8 million, making it the seventh highest grossing documentary of all time. "When I acquired the movie, industry pundits argued that the film could not cross over," says David Dinerstein, former co-president of Paramount Classics, "because sophisticated, adult audiences were unwilling to see movies centered around ten and eleven-year-old inner city kids. These so-called experts underestimated the audience's thirst for something that is both intellectually stimulating while being highly entertaining at the same time."


Ken Eisen, president of Shadow Distribution, also went with his gut when he released Judy Irving's " The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill", which took in over $3 million in very limited release, while also garnering some of the best reviews of the year. "I think the film worked because it's an honest, true and fascinatingly human story," Eisen told indieWIRE. "It has a genuinely happy ending that's not false and phony and overstated. It's beautifully shot... birds and other animals can, in fact, seem a lot more human than humans do these days. On top of that, hidden inside the film is an archetypal, though completely offbeat version of an American success story."


There are few success stories as big as the other bird movie of the year, Luc Jacquet's "March of the Penguins," which took in an astonishing $77.4 million, and broke the $106 million mark worldwide, making it the second-highest-grossing doc ever. It, too, was blessed with rave reviews, but 2005 has reminded us that great notices often don't translate into big-ticket sales. How, then, did a US distributor know that that a French documentary about penguins could be adjusted to connect so well with an American audience?


"The short answer is that I spent five years reworking movies at Miramax," says Mark Gill, president of Warner Independent Pictures, "and learned a great deal about what changes make a big difference to an American audience's enjoyment of a movie. My colleagues also have worked on such a large number of movies that they, too, have seen the patterns of what works best in this culture." Working with the already remarkable images captured on film, Gill and his colleagues set out to make a number of changes with the filmmakers' blessings. "We decided on an orchestral score rather than Emilie Simon's pop music," says Gill, "and a single point-of-view narrator rather than voices of the penguins." They also cut about five minutes from the picture, and focused more on what the penguins were actually experiencing. "Then we went looking for a narrator," says Gill, "and were extremely lucky to get Morgan Freeman, who lends so much credence, authority, warmth and storytelling quality to the piece."


There is clearly no formula for what makes a documentary speak to a particular audience, but the genre as a whole continues to reach new heights. "In terms of commercial accessibility, 2005 was a banner year for documentaries," says Dinerstein. "Films like 'March of the Penguins', 'Mad Hot Ballroom' and 'The Aristocrats' all broke onto the top ten grossing documentary film list. Interestingly enough, they each played to a very distinct audience." A quick check of the best reviewed movies of 2005 on rottentomatoes.com will reveal that critics are also highly tuned in to docs this year, as the top five highest rated titles on the list are all nonfiction films. The top two, both with a rating of 100%, are Daniel Gordon's "A State of Mind" and "Twist of Faith" by Kirby Dick, which had a combined box office tally of a mere $44,000.


"The diversity and the quality of docs just keeps increasing," says Urman. "As a result, they get more media coverage than ever - further proof that they have really made it - and this, in turn, further expands the audience. All in all, 2005 was an excellent year in documentary culture and, on the basis of some of the projects I see coming, I would say that 2006 will be another banner year."

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2 Comments

  • traxxgalaxy | December 22, 2005 2:58 AMReply

    "Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt," which is currently in limited nationwide release from Palm Pictures, is also 100% at Rotten Tomatoes with 18 reviews counted, and has to date grossed more than $46,000 with more playdates to come.

  • traxxgalaxy | December 22, 2005 2:58 AMReply

    "Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt," which is currently in limited nationwide release from Palm Pictures, is also 100% at Rotten Tomatoes with 18 reviews counted, and has to date grossed more than $46,000 with more playdates to come.