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Reality Checks: Can 6 Great Docs Survive the Fall Oscar-Qualifying Crunch?

Reality Checks: Can 6 Great Docs Survive the Fall Oscar-Qualifying Crunch?

It’s a great time for documentaries — maybe too great.

In the month of October, many of the year’s most significant and critically lauded documentaries all hit the marketplace at nearly the same time: Jesse Moss’ “The Overnighters” (Oct. 10), Edet Belzberg’s “Watchers of the Sky” (Oct 17), Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny’s “E-Team” (Oct. 22), Laura Poitras’ “CITIZENFOUR” (Oct. 24), Margaret Brown’s “The Great Invisible” (Oct 29) and Marshall Curry’s “Point and Shoot” (Oct. 31). It’s an impressive group. But can they all survive?
Laura Poitras’ “CITIZENFOUR” benefited enormously from its surprise fall New York Film Festival premiere slot, and a tumult of publicity in its wake, earning record box-office numbers in limited release. But the Edward Snowden documentary is the exception, not the rule.

READ MORE: How ‘CITIZENFOUR’ and Other Docs Are Protecting Themselves Against The Man

These films may be better positioned to gain the attention of the Academy’s Documentary Branch, whose members are currently sifting through some 134 eligible films at the moment, but the October documentary crunch may also be limiting the audience for these films.

“The thing that troubles me is that there’s not a lot of successes that have been released from October on,” said Tom Quinn, co-president of RADiUS-TWC, which has both “CITIZENFOUR” and “The Great Invisible” in theaters right now. “It used to be a prevalent release strategy, but there’s such a lack of screen space this time of year, in and around Oscar time, especially for a doc or any art film.”

Music Box Films’ managing director Ed Arentz agreed. “The Academy-qualifying process force-feeds too many docs into the marketplace at a highly competitive time, which pretty much assures great difficulty,” he said.

Arentz, who is handling “Watchers of the Sky” and Amir Bar-lev’s “Happy Valley” (which opens soon), added that “the fall madness does a bit of a disservice to the theatrical prospects of the films.”

But that doesn’t stop distributors from getting caught up in the race. While Paul Davidson, senior VP of The Orchard, acknowledged “the air is being sucked out of the room with all these awards contenders,” the company felt that its acquisition, “Point and Shoot,” deserved a fall slot, considering director Marshall Curry’s Oscar pedigree (he’s been nominated twice before) and the film’s ongoing acclaim (best doc nods from the IDA and the Gothams). “We didn’t want it to get lost eight months ago,” he said. “We wanted it to be on ‘top of mind.'”

The first weekend sales for “Point and Shoot” were respectable — $7,516 from one theater in New York — but it will have a tough time moving forward, as it competes with other films for sophisticated audiences, from “Foxcatcher” to “Interstellar.”

This year’s glut isn’t surprising. The number of documentaries released in the fall is always heavy. Last year, films such as “Let the Fire Burn,” “God Loves Uganda,” “Narco Cultura,” “The Summit,” “The Square” and “The Armstrong Lie” all similarly opened against each other, and none of them broke out. “The Square” was the biggest success, earning approximately $400,000 in ticket sales.

The reality for most documentaries isn’t instantaneous box office gold anyway, but rather involves the process of finding their audiences over the long haul. As Quinn said, “Not every documentary we’ve done is something that we’re hoping to gross $1 million. It’s just not possible.”

While SXSW-winning doc “The Great Invisible,” for instance, is a haunting and multi-layered examination of the effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the film is not a clearly delineated “issue-driven movie,” noted Quinn. “It’s a movie about nuances and how we are all consumed by oil. But is nuance going to poke through in the current release cycle?”

Not so far. When “The Great Invisible” opened over the weekend in Los Angeles and New York, it earned a piddling $783 per-screen average. Though RADiUS is known for its VOD distribution strategy, the company is keeping the film only in theaters, focusing on “exclusive theatrical platform single event-building,” Quinn said, citing a calculated booking of the film in Mobile, Alabama, one of the areas effected by the oil spill.

Similarly, Sundance and San Francisco doc winner “The Overnighters” — which has earned less than $40,000 after four weeks in release — will be expanding outside of the glutted big cities next week to focus not only on second-tier art-house markets, but also “oil markets” where residents may find the film’s themes resonant, according to Drafthouse’s Tim League, which is distributing the movie. “Part of our expansion strategy is booking towns in North Dakota and central Texas, where fracking is affecting the towns,” he said. In the small-town of Williston, North Dakota where the film is set, for example, the film earned a solid $6,000 at a local theater.

But one wonders what would happen with the release of such films outside of the fall glut. Shouldn’t smart, well-crafted documentaries be distributed in an environment that is more nurturing and less cutthroat? With the increasing number of documentaries released every year, perhaps no such dates exist. But you’d think it might be more possible during other seasons. As Arentz noted, “There’s no rule that says you can’t do [Oscar runs] earlier in the year.”

But the irony of the October-November-December Oscar-qualifying run is that it has a mixed track record. In the last five years, three of the Best Documentary winners — “20 Feet from Stardom” “Searching for Sugar Man” and “The Cove” — all opened in the summer. And of last year’s five Oscar nominees, only one, “The Square,” was released in the fall.

Indeed, for all of the above reasons, Drafthouse decided to schedule Oscar-nominated director Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful new documentary “The Look of Silence” for release next summer.

“Traditionally, now is the best time to release, because you’re fresh in Academy voters’ minds,” said League, “but it’s a very glutted season in terms of prestige documentaries.”

Considering the competition, he added, “I can’t imagine [“Look of Silence”] going out in this climate.”

READ MORE: Can One of the Year’s Best Docs Overcome Its Marketing Challenges?

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