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Indie Focus: A by-the-book approach for ‘Freakonomics’? Hardly

In adapting the economics bestseller “Freakonomics” into a documentary film, and in marketing it, producer Chad Troutwine hardly took a by-the-book approach.

First, he brought together something of a dream team of contemporary documentary filmmakers, from the serious and high-minded to the entertainingly comedic, to tackle various chapters or ideas from the text by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Then, to sell the movie, he and distributor Magnolia Pictures decided to release it first as a digital download and via video-on-demand before taking it to theaters.

To promote the film, they staged a “pay what you want” deal in 10 cities, including L.A., where people could buy tickets online in advance for between $0.01 and $100. Since “Freakonomics” is essentially the study of incentives to find unlikely connections between events, it seemed a particularly fitting move.

“I want to thank you for being part of our experiment,” Troutwine said as he introduced the film at its promotional screening Sept. 22 at the Landmark in West Los Angeles, which was barely half full even though technically the event was sold out in advance. Given the option to pay as little as a penny (which is what most people did), people apparently had little incentive to actually show up — a perfectly freakonomical result.

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“Freakonomics” consists of short films by Seth Gordon, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki and the team of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. For Troutwine, the idea of making the movie as a series of shorts came after he finished another omnibus project, “Paris, je t’aime,” in which a group of filmmakers made shorts set in the French capital. The style seemed to him a natural way to bring “Freakonomics” to the screen.

“Because each chapter was disconnected, it seemed natural to treat the film as disconnected, but like Levitt and Dubner, make that an asset and a virtue,” Troutwine said the day before the promo screening. “I thought it would be really engaging to let different filmmakers take on something challenging and interesting in the book in their own cinematic style.”

Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) covered a chapter that dealt with how peoples’ names affect their lives. Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) tackled arguably the book’s most controversial chapter, which tied declining crime rates in the 1990s to the legalization of abortion in the 1970s. Gibney ( an Oscar winner for his “Taxi to the Dark Side”) covered cheating in Japanese sumo wrestling. Grady and Ewing (nominated for an Academy Award for “Jesus Camp”) examined whether monetary incentives improve high school students’ performances.

“I saw pretty quickly we were going to have pretty diverse voices interpret the chapters, so somebody was going to need to make the thing flow as a single film,” Gordon said of his role making shorter, interstitial pieces that covered more topics, like skimming a few extra chapters from the book. “I liked the book well enough that I wanted to cover a few things from it. I considered it really a privilege to be able to hit five or six different topics.”

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Gordon, best known for his film “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” also has an executive producer credit on the film.

Just as with the phantom ticket buyers for the “pay what you want” screening, it remains to be seen whether fans of the book will pay for the movie.

“One of the challenges I did anticipate is we’re not going to please everyone, or we’ll lose people who’ll say, ‘I read the book,’” Troutwine said. But Spurlock said the film might attract people who found the book “dense.”

“It sold 5 million copies. But I know a lot of people who started getting into it and were like, ‘I couldn’t finish it, it’s too much for my brain,”’ Spurlock said. “I think the film makes much of that information really accessible.”

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Best of the best

In the documentary “Kings of Pastry,” filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker enter the world of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition, in which 16 chefs compete over three days to wear a red, white and blue collar that signifies they are among the world’s elite craftsmen of confectionary pastries. The film, opening Friday in Los Angeles, sounds like cream-puff, sugar-spun fun, but for the competitors, this is no treat.

“It goes back to ‘Let them eat cake,’” Pennebaker said of the culture and tradition of high-end pastry making in France. “They take this seriously.”

Pennebaker has directed such landmark films as “Don’t Look Back”; with Hegedus, he has long examined process — how things happen and why people do what they do, with films such as “The War Room” and “Startup.com.”

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“I think in the process of somebody’s life, the complexities of what they’re passionate about is part of what we look for,” said Hegedus. “You have no idea what goes into being one of the best pastry chefs. They have a whole world.”

Following the French-born, Chicago-based chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, “Kings of Pastry” is part character portrait, part competition film. After seeing Pfeiffer’s meticulous preparations and tracking him through the contest, it is difficult not to root for him. Even Pennebaker and Hegedus admit they came to think of Pfeiffer as a friend, although as filmmakers they had to work with whatever his outcome in the contest was.

“It’s part of making these films where you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hegedus said.

calendar@latimes.com


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