Last night I ran over to the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown to help oversee the screening of Bush’s Brain we were hosting as part of our SXSW Summer Cinema Series. The turnout was great, but I couldn’t help notice a trend: many of the audience members had never been to an Alamo theater before, and that is usually a good litmus test in Austin for whether or not you’re a regular filmgoer. But more importantly, I think it speaks volumes about the current fever for political documentaries.
Whether it’s Outfoxed, The Hunting of the President, Control Room, or even Fahrenheit 9/11, this trend in political docs is working parallel with a trend in audiences that don’t normally see films, now coming out in large numbers. Shortly before the world premiere of Bush’s Brain at SXSW 2004, someone commented to me, “You know, it doesn’t matter whether this is a great film or not, this audience will love it for its politics.”
In his positive review of Bush’s Brain for Variety, critic Joe Leydon made a similar point. He wrote that this doc should be able to attract viewers that don’t normally come out for nonfiction films. And, I see that more and more with a lot of these releases. They aren’t just seen as a cinematic experience, they’re a political gathering, first and foremost. Classic political docs like Primary or The War Room were different. They were made as artistic pieces of filmmaking first, not second.
Who knows how long the trend will last and who knows how many of these new converts will become permanent fixtures of the documentary audience? I think the results of this year’s presidential election will help determine that outcome.
Meanwhile, news came last week that Bush’s Brain has been acquired for theatrical distribution by Tartan Films. It’ll be in nationwide theaters within the coming weeks. Which means, more than likely, more film folks will witness what I witnessed last night at the Alamo… theatrical documentary virgins finding a reason to leave the house after all these years.