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WORD OF MOUTH

Environmental movies have a green problem: money

Despite 'Food, Inc.'s' success, few new ecological documentaries are enjoying robust box-office takes. Chalk it up to audiences preferring escapist tales rather than disturbing reality.

August 13, 2009|John Horn

Interest in the environment is heating up as fast as global warming. Contributions to the Sierra Club soared 33% last year, homeowners are installing solar panels, and even preschool children are recycling. At the same time, nonfiction filmmakers are trying to shape the ecological conversation, turning out an abundance of critically acclaimed, Earth-friendly documentaries.

But three years after "An Inconvenient Truth" won over moviegoers and Oscar voters, many new works are suffering the same fate plaguing other intellectually engaging films: moviegoers would rather hug Transformers than trees.

"Food, Inc.," a documentary about the dangers of the food supply, has done remarkably well since its June 12 premiere, grossing $3.6 million to date. Some upcoming documentaries -- including Sept. 11's "No Impact Man," about one man's obsessive yearlong quest to live sustainably -- could well leave an equally impressive box-office mark.

But because ticket buyers prefer escapist fare these days, it's not easy being green. Just as audiences have shied away from highbrow dramas, ticket buyers have been reluctant to swim to "The Cove," a documentary on Japanese dolphin killing that has some of the year's best reviews. Despite a ton of publicity, "The Cove" labored after expanding into limited national release last weekend. "It's not what we would have hoped," says Howard Cohen, whose Roadside Attractions is releasing the film. "There's no question that we have a challenge in front of us. When people hear there is violence against animals, it's tough for them to think about it. But the concept of the movie is much more off-putting than the experience of watching it."

Cohen says Roadside Attractions will revise the film's advertising campaign, showcasing more of "The Cove's" critical plaudits than some of its more troubling elements, most of which are confined to the film's final five minutes.

"The Cove's" struggles are not unique; there's a sharp divide among nature and science documentaries depending on the message. The largely feel-good, family-friendly Imax movies play forever: "Space Station 3D" has grossed nearly $80 million since premiering more than seven years ago. But "The Garden," an Oscar-nominated feature documentary about the battle over a community garden in South Los Angeles, sold only $26,931 in tickets after its April release.

"I think people are a little overwhelmed -- I think I am -- when it's just one catastrophe after another," says Robert Stone, a veteran nonfiction filmmaker ("Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst") whose film, Aug. 21's "Earth Days," traces the history and outlook of the environmental movement. "It's very easy to feel like there is no hope. But I think my film can serve a larger purpose -- to provide a framework so people can understand how we arrived at this point, and provide some hope," Stone says.

It's not just the call-to-arms message that might be limiting the appeal of some of these films; unlike the hits "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," the green documentaries don't have recognizable stars such as Al Gore and Michael Moore. (In a classic Hollywood twist, "No Impact Man," about a New York family struggling to live without refrigeration, electricity and even toilet paper, is being reworked as a possible drama for Will Smith.) Furthermore, the subject matter can be more than a little arcane: "Dirt! The Movie" is just that -- a movie about dirt.

"It's a challenge for us to get people to understand the importance of soil without it being scientific or goofy," says Bill Benenson, a producer and co-director of the film, which has yet to announce a theatrical distribution date. After its Sundance premiere this January, potential distributors "did not show a significant interest" in a topic that Benenson believes is "fundamental to our survival and status and place on Earth."

Like numerous makers of nonfiction film, Benenson believes the critical platform for documentaries is television. Regardless of what happens to "Dirt! The Movie" in theaters, Benenson says the film will be a part of next year's Earth Day programming presented by PBS and ITVS, the Independent Television Service.

Green movies play a prominent role on Snag Films, an Internet site offering streaming, commercially sponsored nonfiction movies for free. Among the site's 87 environmentally themed documentaries are "The Future of Food," "Human Footprint" and "Fighting Goliath: Texas Coal Wars."

Dan Cogan, whose Impact Partners fund has contributed millions of dollars to help finance socially relevant filmmaking over the last 2 1/2 years, says that only a handful of documentaries can be expected to gross as much as $2 million theatrically, and only the rare exception can approach Michael Moore's numbers. "There are not often going to be $100-million docs," he says. The better test, he says, is how many people will see them on television or buy the DVDs.

"I think 'The Cove' is a film that's going to live for a very long time, which is great," Cogan says. In addition to helping finance "No Impact Man," Impact Partners also was involved in "The Garden." "We are just now closing the television deal for that film," Cogan says of "The Garden." "And it likely will be seen by millions of people on television."

Says filmmaker Stone: "I think there's always a market for more serious films."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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