Summer's Serious Side: Politically Aware Docs Vie Against Sequels and Blockbusters
by Steven Rosen
"A slumbering beast has been awakened." That's how Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, explains his belief that this summer will be a big one for documentaries at the box-office.
But the "slumbering beast" he's referring to isn't the public's long-dormant interest in paying money to see documentaries at theaters. That changed last summer, when "Winged Migration," "Spellbound" and Magnolia's own "Capturing the Friedmans" all became popular.
It instead refers to the public's newfound political awareness. Amidst the frustratingly problematic Iraq war, ongoing threats of domestic terrorism, and the increasingly acrimonious presidential campaign, moviegoers are primed for social activism - and political education. And this summer's documentaries, Bowles believes, are ready to deliver.
"I think this summer has the potential to outdo last summer," he says. "'Super Size Me' (Morgan Spurlock's fast-food doc) already is off to a good start, and 'Fahrenheit 9/11' has a chance to blow it out of the water."
Magnolia has a political documentary, "Control Room," out now (and already breaking records at New York's Film Forum) -- it's a look at the controversial Al-Jazeera Arabic satellite news channel. Other summer docs include Zeitgeist's "The Corporation," a hard-hitting critique of the modern multinational corporation that debuted in California last week; Regent Releasing's expose of President Clinton's enemies, "The Hunting of the President"; and United Artists' "The Yes Men," in which anti-corporate protestors impersonate World Trade Organization officials.
Thanks to a new deal from Lions Gate, IFC and Bob & Harvey Weinstein's Fellowship Adventure Group, Michael Moore's scathingly anti-President Bush "Fahrenheit 9/11" will also be out later this month -- no doubt dominating headlines. Moore's last film, the Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine," is the highest-grossing documentary ever. And there's been plenty of pre-opening buzz of "Fahrenheit" after Disney forbade Miramax from releasing it and Moore captured the Palme D'Or at Cannes. [Perhaps stretching the definition of political, Disney's own July 4th-weekend documentary, "America's Heart and Soul," is a populist travelogue with a featured John Mellencamp song.]
Also waiting in the wings, should it find a distributor in time, is the well-publicized "Bush's Brain" about presidential adviser Karl Rove. Meanwhile "Deadline," a Sundance-debuting documentary that takes a hard look at the death penalty, will get a very limited theatrical release before its national primetime broadcast on NBC in July. And First Run's "Bright Leaves" is Ross McElwee's first-person rumination on the tobacco industry.
"I don't anticipate all these documentaries will do well, but the willingness to put them out is interesting," Bowles says. "After the election, these may all be moot, so the decision is to get them out while they're hot."
And the nation is waiting -- even in small towns like Paducah, Ky., Columbus, Ind., and Hilton Head, S.C., among the six Midwestern and Southern cities where Cincinnati-based booker Larry Thomas programs art houses. "The controversial anti-establishment films 'Fahrenheit 9/11' and 'The Corporation' seem to be no-brainers, since they already have the buzz and will generate lots of ink and discussion," he says.
Considering that summer is "the silly season" at the multiplexes -- expensive escapist thrillers and high-concept comedies from Hollywood studios -- the sheer number of documentaries slated for art-house release is impressive. (But then, even Hollywood may be getting tired of political irrelevancy. One of its most anticipated films, the apocalyptic "The Day After Tomorrow," is pointedly being marketed as an accurate depiction of global warming's repercussions.)
Besides the aforementioned documentaries, various pop-cultural remembrances and investigations also are coming this summer. Two of the most anticipated are both scheduled to open on July 9: IFC's "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" and Sony Classics' "Riding Giants," which opened this year's Sundance Film Festival and is "Dogtown and Z-Boyz"'s Stacy Peralta's look at surfing's history.
Ray Price, vice president of marketing at Landmark Theatres, the nation's largest art-film exhibitor with 204 screens, sees the Metallica documentary as a fascinating summer gamble. It has won early critical raves for showing the heavy metal band as a dysfunctional family in need of therapy.
"It may be the film's appeal has nothing to do with Metallica, but rather with the emotional dynamics of three men who happen to be in a world-famous rock 'n' roll band," he says. "Will fans want to see that much character development? And will those who aren't fans find the characters interesting?"
Also of pop-cultural interest are Dada Films' "The Golden Age of Broadway," featuring vintage clips and Broadway veterans poignantly recalling the great dramas and musicals of the pre-Andrew Lloyd Webber era; ThinkFilm's "Festival Express," about a 1970 train trip across Canada by Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, the Band and other countercultural rockers; and Magnolia's "Bukowski: Born Into This" a powerful and beautifully assembled look at the struggle to create literature by the profane, boozy L.A. writer Charles Bukowski. Meanwhile, Seventh Art is releasing the Scrabble doc, "Word Wars."
Not every company releasing a summer documentary is doing so as a matter of first choice. Emily Russo, co-founder and co-president of Zeitgeist, says she'd rather have released "The Corporation" earlier but it took until now to get the right screens in the right cities to launch it. Zeitgeist acquired the film in January, concurrently with its Sundance screening. "The fact documentaries have proven themselves to be box-office successes has helped us because exhibitors now have all done well with documentaries," she says. "And people do go to movies in the summer -- they like the air conditioning."
After a strong opening in early June in San Francisco, "Corporation" will slowly broaden to -- for now -- 30 other cities by July. Russo says her company would be disappointed if the 2.5-hour film doesn't gross at least $1 million, more than any previous Zeitgeist documentary. (Its earlier releases include "Let's Get Lost" and "Manufacturing Consent.")
While not strictly a documentary, ThinkFilm's "The Story of the Weeping Camel" mixes scripted and verite-style elements in its look a nomadic Mongolian family's concern for a rare white camel. "There is an audience for exotic lands and places," Landmark's Price says. "Not to be disrespectful of the film by putting it under the travelogue heading, but there is a desire to go to strange yet desirable places."
Price believes last summer's hits, along with Moore's "Columbine," changed everything for documentaries. Yet at the same time, in a curious way, it changed nothing.
"The stigma is gone," he says. "What was new last year was a realization that good storytellers could weave as many storytelling devices into nonfiction as fiction. But once these films are out from the shadow of the 'D' word and are not received like leprosy, they're right in the soup with everyone else. You can't make generalized judgments about them.
"But the myth of commerciality is allowing more of these to find their way to market," he says. "What's changed is (industry) people now believe success is possible, and if they believe it's possible, they will work harder to make it so."
And they're working very hard indeed this summer.