Doc Depression: Can Nonfiction Bounce Back At Box-Office?

by Anthony Kaufman
October 8, 2007 3:47 AM
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Last month, I wrote some documentary stories for Variety's Independents issue, outlining the troubled time that docs have faced in theaters over the last several months ("'Sicko' success can't cure genre") -- especially when compared to 2005, when at least eight docs achieved multimillion-dollar status (from "March of the Penguins" all the way down to "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill"). But I also suggested this documentary recession could be a temporary one, with the fall's nonfiction releases looking robust, particularly ThinkFilm's "In the Shadow of the Moon" ("Space doc has crossover potential"). But now I'm starting to have my doubts: Are docs in the middle of a full-blown depression?

Over the weekend, Sony Classics' extremely well reviewed "My Kid Could Paint That" (89% on Rotten Tomatoes) earned $28,300 over the weekend, which is great for a documentary opening, but not so hot, considering it went out in seven theaters for a per-venue average of $4,042. If the film has the elbow room to stay in theaters and build word-of-mouth, it's still got a chance. But I'm not so sure that's possible much these days. Similarly, "Lake of Fire" -- Tony Kaye's abortion-doc "masterpiece" (a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes) -- grossed just $3,000 at the Film Forum on its opening weekend.

While "In the Shadow of the Moon" has now reached close to $800,000 after five weeks in release, it also seems to be stalling, with a mere $1,509 per-theater average. At this rate, it's going to take a long time for ThinkFilm to recoup its $2-3 million committment on the film. And if a crowd-pleasing story of soaring American astronauts fighting for dominance in the international space race can't turn the tide for docs, I'm not sure what will.

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