Election years are typically strong for political documentaries. Capitalizing on citizens' hunger for issues that the mainstream media is either ignoring or mishandling, audiences flock to theaters to get a deeper sense of what's going on in the world. At least that was the thinking in 2004, with the blockbuster sales of "Fahrenheit 9/11" and also given the multi-million-dollar grosses of "The Fog of War," "Control Room," "Super Size Me," and "The Corporation." Even "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry" wasn't swift-boated in theaters, earning more than $614,000.
Four years later, docs, as has already been widely reported, are struggling in theaters--and political and socially conscious documentaries, in particular, are bearing the worst of it. 2008 duds include "Chicago 10" ($156,000), "Taxi to the Dark Side" ($248,200) and "Body of War" ($32,000). Morgan Spurlock's "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" opened in 102 theaters with a per-venue average of just $1,401 and dropped significantly this weekend. Compare that to the 41-theater debut of "Super Size Me," which garnered a $12,601 average, one can see how different the landscape is nowadays.
"Everyone is uninterested," said Roadside Attractions' Howard Cohen, who worked on the release of "Super Size Me" as well as this year's "Chicago 10." Even in markets where Oscar-nominated director Brett Morgen's super-energized retelling of the Chicago 1968 rabblerousers got four-star reviews, such as Washington D.C. ("the first great film of 2008," wrote the Washington Post), audiences were "absolutely indifferent," explained Cohen.
But Diane Weyermann, executive VP of documentary films at Participant Media, which backed "Chicago 10" and Errol Morris' "Standard Operating Procedure," noted that we shouldn't react to the grim numbers in an "alarmist way." She said the marketplace is merely in a downbeat cycle. "I really think we're going to come back up again. It always has," she added.
She pointed to Errol Morris's unique brand of investigative documentary as something that can bring audiences back to the theater for engaging nonfiction. "There are people who will go see an Errol Morris film, because of who he is, and maybe that will open things up again," Weyermann said. Indeed, Sony Pictures Classics marketing of "S.O.P." puts Morris front-and-center (for example) as much as the controversial Abu Ghraib photographs that anchor the film.
But the opening weekend numbers for "Standard Operating Procedure" were not Morris' best, earning $14,916 on two screens (for an average of $7,458). His last three films all had higher initial per-screen averages: "The Fog of War"($13,816), "Mr. Death" ($8,041) and "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" ($11,832).
Still, if there's any nonfiction director whose work looks like it should be seen on a big screen, it's certainly Morris's. (One of "S.O.P."'s cinematographers Robert Richardson was also director of photography on films such as "The Aviator," "Kill Bill" and "JFK.") "I think they are movies," said Morris of his films, emphasizing the "movie" aspect of that statement and likening "S.O.P." to a horror film. "If I made a nonfiction film noir," he said, referring to 1988's "The Thin Blue Line," "why not try a nonfiction horror movie?"
While Morris believes audience will see the film, he acknowledged that Iraq and its gruesome side effects haven't interested Americans much. "People have never been focused on it," he said.
Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker said that "S.O.P." will be rolling out over the summer in a "slow and steady release," reaching major markets in May and June and expanding all the way to Lexington, Kentucky and Norfork, Virginia in July. "It'll play in many cities and town," he explained. "What remains to be seen is the duration of the play in these towns."
Barker remains realistic about the challenges of releasing any film in today's market. "Since 'An Inconvenient Truth,' no documentary has done what they should do. But if you look at the indie films released between 'Little Miss Sunshine' and 'Juno,' there aren't many successes. It's a trend we're experiencing beyond films with difficult political subjects. It's difficult," he added. "It was always difficult."
Even with Morris's "Fog of War" - which grossed a healthy $4.2 million - Barker remembers journalists calling him after the opening, asking, "'Is this going to work?'" Likewise, there's plenty of time for "Standard Operating Procedure" to find its audience, according to Barker, both in the U.S. and also internationally. (After winning a Silver Bear in Berlin, the film will likely go onto be Morris' biggest foreign grosser.) "It's a long-term watch," said Barker.
This summer, several other political docs will try, despite the odds, to recapture theatrical audiences, including three films about the Iraq war: "Heavy Metal in Baghdad" (which opens in New York on May 23), "Operation Filmmaker" (which will play in several markets, starting in June) and "Full Battle Rattle" (which opens at the Film Forum on July 9). All three films share a uniqueness of approach and specific subject matter that could help them break out of the "Iraq-doc" box.
"Full Battle Rattle" co-director Jesse Moss feels the culture is ready to move beyond the first round of Iraq documentaries, which were, as he describes them, "film versions of the nonfiction books I read about Iraq," he said.
"Full Battle Rattle," which premiered in Berlin, documents U.S. army Iraq war simulations held in the Mojave Desert, with a sharply ironic gaze. "There's such a novelty factor to our film that I think people will come out for it," said "Full Battle Rattle" co-director Tony Gerber. "There's a flavor to our film that hasn't been part of the dialogue."
Likewise, Nina Davenport, who made "Operation Filmmaker," about an Iraqi film student who is rescued from Iraq by Liev Schreiber to work on his movie "Everything is Illuminated," said she likes to tackle a subject in a more offbeat way. "I'm always more interested in an angle that isn't the obvious one and that resonates on a larger level," she said. "Because my film is not just about Iraq; it's about what it means to do something charitable. And what does it mean to make a film about someone who doesn't have any resources when you yourself have resources."
For "Heavy Metal in Baghdad" directors Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi, they're hoping their documentary will reach a younger audience, who they believe have been underserved. "If you look at the Iraq documentaries and the reporting," said Moretti, "this is one generation talking to itself. It has not engaged young Americans. It's McCain talking to McCain's generation."
Participant Media has not backed down on political docs that they hope will tap into and inspire a wider audience. According to Weyerman, the company has three political docs readying for distribution: Alex Gibney's latest "Casino Jack," about disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, "Pressure Cooker," about an inner city culinary arts program, and "The Food Project," a co-production with River Road ("Brokeback Mountain") about the industrialization of food.
If the performance of "Standard Operating Procedure" doesn't portend smooth sailing for the rest of Participant's slate or the other upcoming political docs, there is one documentary in theaters about a hot-button issue that is generating sizable sales. "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," a right-wing piece of creationist propaganda about the scientific establishment's unfair treatment of intelligent design, has grossed nearly $5.3 million in just ten days, making it one of the most successful nonfiction films of the past year.