It was the Saturday night before the Oscars. A spate of glitzy bashes for Hollywood insiders and film fans alike was in gear. A 10 p.m. screening of Nathaniel Kahn's "My Architect" was the last offering on the International Documentary Assn.'s DocuDay presentation of the Academy Award nominees -- an unlikely destination for all but the die-hards.
Think again. The Writers Guild of America theater was packed, clearing out only at the conclusion of the post-screening Q&A with the filmmaker and the editor around 1 a.m. People, many of whom had been on the premises since morning, had to wend their way around the cleaning staff.
"We sold 405 all-day passes compared to 277 last year -- doubling our ticket revenues," said IDA Executive Director Sandra Ruch. "Even more amazing, 100 of them were sold prior to the announcement of the nominees. That's a blank check, a vote of confidence in documentaries, as a whole. Theater owners take notice: If you show them, they will come."
Once relegated to public broadcasting, cable channels or independent film festivals, the genre is increasingly viewed as popular entertainment worthy of big-screen play. Though many documentaries still face an uphill battle, Hollywood's perpetual stepchildren are finally getting seated at the grown-ups' table. They're making money. They're easier to finance and market. And they are increasingly feeding an adult appetite in a movie world that is more often aimed at teenagers.
"Not to say that every documentary does business," said Sony Pictures Classics co-President Michael Barker. "But those of a certain quality can break out in a way they couldn't have done before."
Michael Moore's Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine" was a breakthrough, everyone agrees. Moore has become a movie star of sorts, a media personality who gives the genre more mainstream legitimacy. Broadening the definition of a documentary to include "attitude" and "advocacy," his 2002 film grossed a record-setting $21.6 million.
"For a documentary to take in that kind of money was a mind-altering experience, breaking down barriers for the consumer, the media and distributors," said ThinkFilm theatrical distribution head Mark Urman, who released "Spellbound," a film about eight teenagers competing for the 1999 National Spelling Bee. "Within 10 hours of the first screening at the Cannes film festival, ["Columbine"] was sold for multiple millions of dollars -- many times the norm." Typically, documentaries don't make enough to warrant that kind of money, he notes. That "Columbine" did "emboldened others to do the same."
The enhanced profile of documentaries was reflected in this year's Oscar race, adds Urman, who will have released four nonfiction films by the end of the summer. The controversy fueled by "Capturing the Friedmans," in which the filmmaker was accused of favoring convicted child molesters Arnold and Jesse Friedman, is a sign the genre has "arrived," Urman maintains.
"Who would have wasted time blasting 'Nanook of the North?' " he asks. "People are spending a lot of money on campaigns, with publicists on each coast, VIP screenings, and, occasionally, full-page ads."
'Two zeroes' no more
Three of this year's Academy Award nominees -- the Oscar-winning "The Fog of War" (whose total tally could reach $10 million), "Friedmans" ($3.1-million gross) and "My Architect" (doing well in limited release) have scored relatively big at the box office, just as "Spellbound," "Winged Migration" and IMAX's "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure" did in recent years.
When it comes to box office receipts, "two zeroes" -- Errol Morris' answer to a question about the difference between drama and documentaries -- no longer applies. And commercial appeal, said to have worked against movies such as "Hoop Dreams" and "Crumb" in past Oscar competition, no longer connotes "anti-intellectual."
This year, all of the nominees had extended theatrical runs far exceeding eligibility rules -- a first for the motion picture academy. And last September, 15 documentaries were playing in nearly 300 locations, according to IndieWIRE.com. In the coming months, Stacy Peralta's surf-culture film "Riding Giants," "The Corporation" (filmmakers Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar's examination of the corporation as social institution), Harry Thomason's "The Hunting of the President" (a look at the campaign to discredit the Clintons), and Jonathan Demme's "The Agronomist" (a portrait of an assassinated Haitian human rights advocate) will find their way into neighborhood theaters.
These films, though strong, are no better than previous releases, industry insiders maintain. But they're benefiting from fiscal and technological changes in the industry -- as well as the current mind-set. "Reality" is the buzzword of the moment, with "Survivor" and "The Apprentice" dominating the small screen. Adults hungry for more than headline news -- or Hollywood's adolescent-oriented releases -- are seeking more in-depth coverage and real reality fare.