Docs get snub at box office

Times Staff Writer

Agripping documentary about performance-enhancing drugs, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” has everything going for it: Some of the year’s best reviews, a highly topical subject, a film festival pedigree and winsome filmmakers willing to tour the country to drum up interest.

There’s only one thing missing: moviegoers.

Critically acclaimed films about provocative subjects struggle to make money all the time, but rarely have so many lauded documentaries consistently failed to connect at the box office. The recent nonfiction returns have been so bleak that several distributors are growing wary about taking on such highbrow works, an alarming development in a pop culture universe already dominated by “American Idol,” James Frey and US Weekly.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before,” says Michael Barker, whose Sony Pictures Classics has released the documentary duds “Standard Operating Procedure,” “Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains” and “My Kid Could Paint That,” none of which grossed more than $250,000 theatrically. “Unless you have movie stars like Michael Moore or Al Gore associated with your film, you can’t sell tickets.”


In addition to Magnolia Pictures’ “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*,” which arrived in theaters three weeks ago but has grossed only $164,000, the recent beleaguered documentaries include Fox Searchlight’s “Young@Heart” and Magnolia’s “Surfwise.” The winner of this year’s feature documentary Academy Award, ThinkFilm’s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” grossed just $275,000.

“It’s been brutal,” Alex Buono, a producer on “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*,” says of trying to coax moviegoers into theaters. “We spent three years making this film, and [releasing it] is just an extension of that uphill battle.”

Distributors offer a number of explanations behind the drop in documentary attendance:

“Standard Operating Procedure” and “Taxi to the Dark Side” focus on war and torture, topics that have been a deadly curse for numerous dramas, including “Lions for Lambs,” “Stop-Loss” and “Rendition.”

Wall-to-wall coverage of the political campaigns may have left moviegoers desperate for mind-numbing getaways. In that view, “The Incredible Hulk” is far more attractive than the challenging “Surfwise,” a look at an unusual family wandering around in a camper.

Audiences that used to embrace contentious films have grown tired of them. “I used to die to have my movies be controversial,” says Magnolia’s Eamonn Bowles. “Now I don’t want my movies to be controversial.”

While all of the explanations may be partially true, something larger may also be at work: a rising schism within the theatrical marketplace. Just as the gap between the rich and poor is growing in the country, it’s expanding at the multiplex too.


Among last summer’s 30 highest-grossing films, the top 10 collected an average of $248.3 million. The bottom third grossed an average of $32.3 million -- a chasm of $216 million, according to Nielsen EDI. A year earlier, the gap between the haves and have-nots was almost a third less, at $158.5 million.

The tables are tilting more heavily toward blockbusters in the specialized film world too. After the success of crossover hits such as “Bend It Like Beckham,” “March of the Penguins” and “Juno,” millions of dollars flooded into independent film production, creating not only hundreds more movies but also higher expectations for their box-office performance. Marketing costs for specialized films consequently are soaring, up from $17.8 million per film in 2006 to a whopping $25.7 million last year.

As companies once content with art-house singles started swinging for wide-release home runs, the audience followed their lead: If a new film didn’t have a must-see buzz surrounding it, moviegoers would just wait for it to arrive in their Netflix mailers.

And documentaries -- no matter how favorably reviewed -- were caught in the middle.

“It costs too much money and too much effort to break through,” says Steven Beer, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig who specializes in selling difficult dramas and documentaries.

Before “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” was released, though, there were disagreements over how the film should be marketed. Magnolia wanted creative materials to play up the film’s entertainment value and female appeal, even adding a ballerina (who isn’t in the movie) to its poster. The filmmakers worried Magnolia’s campaign might repel documentary aficionados and sports fans.

“That’s what we were trying to emphasize -- that it’s really entertaining,” says Magnolia’s Bowles. “Not that we’re ripping the lid off on steroid abuse.” But producer Buono worries the marketing spin made the movie seem superficial. “It’s intentionally trying to make it look not too serious, that it’s a big, fun action movie.”


The film ultimately might have been hurt by its subject matter -- people simply had steroid fatigue. And the topic of “Young@Heart” -- older people singing alternative rock hits -- may have been too much for Fox Searchlight to conquer as well.

In its first deal for a doc- umentary, Fox Searchlight bought the film at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival for $1.5 million. Although “Young @Heart” might gross as much as $4 million (it’s at $3.4 million now), given the acquisition cost and marketing expenditures, “we are disappointed,” says Fox Searchlight’s Steve Gilula.

Even though the film “is an incredibly uplifting, joyous experience,” Gilula says the core art-house audience didn’t take up the film, leaving mostly older women as its ticket buyers. “We were not able to successfully overcome the resistance” to a movie about the elderly, Gilula says.

With such a tight documentary marketplace, distributors are looking for new ways to deliver nonfiction films. First Run Features, which has distributed documentaries for nearly 30 years, relies on out-of-the-ordinary venues, showing its “For the Bible Tells Me So” at churches and “Wetlands Preserved: The Story of an Activist Nightclub” at concert sites.

IFC recently launched Festival Direct, a video-on-demand service whose slate includes unusual documentaries. The nonprofit Tribeca Film Institute just started Reframe, which has more than 300 documentaries available for DVD purchase and computer download. “It’s not the only solution,” says Tribeca’s Brian Newman, “but we hope it’s part of one.”

It might be small consolation for moviegoers who want to see their docs in theaters.

“I believe,” says Gilula, “that we will be very cautious in considering future documentaries.”