It was only a few years ago that everyone was proclaiming the box-office triumph of nonfiction films. "Winged Migration," a movie about birds in flight, grossed over $11 million, a rare bird indeed. "Spellbound" was a surprise success. Morgan Spurlock's big Mac-attack "Super Size Me" made another $11 million, a high-calorie hit in a field where $1 million had been considered boffo. Then in 2004 came Michael Moore's blistering polemic "Fahrenheit 9/11," exploding all notions of what a nonfiction film could achieve with blockbuster-like grosses of $119 million. A year later came the ultimate fluke hit, a French-made documentary about penguins that was so successful ($77 million) I don't have to give the title.
The boom was on, the gold rush began. Distributors gobbled up docs at prices no one was used to paying. The market was flooded with product: some of it superb and laden with critical praise; some of it urgent and timely; some of it aimed at niche markets that would presumably rush out to see a movie about their favorite subjects: crossword puzzles, wine, women's high-school basketball; some of it merely mediocre but so cheap to make in the new era of over-the-counter digital filmmaking that investors figured they had nothing to lose.
Then everybody got burned. Unless documentaries were made by Michael Moore, or featured Al Gore talking about inconvenient truths, the theatrical market for these films collapsed. Huge expectations ran into a wall of audience indifference: "Crazy Love" was supposed to go through the roof yet it made a measly $301,000. "Taxi to the Dark Side" won the best-documentary Oscar—and its grosses, paltry to begin with, went down! Alex Gibney, the director of this tough movie about the torture of terror suspects by Americans, is suing THINKFilm, its distributor, for what he says was an inadequate release. With all due respect to Gibney, he's kidding himself if he thinks tons of marketing money could have made a difference. Even Errol Morris's high-profile film on Abu Ghraib, "Standard Operating Procedure," flopped—$209,000.
When times are tough, bad news is the toughest sell. Then why did "Fahrenheit 9/11" succeed while all the subsequent Iraq movies failed? It's all in the timing, says Moore, who has three of the five top-grossing nonfiction films in history. "If you wait until it's safe to make an Iraq War film, people don't need to go to be told it's a bad idea," he says. "If it feels like medicine or a lecture, they won't go." Moore's point is reinforced by the relative success of "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," which, at $7.6 million, is 2008's second most-popular nonfiction film (behind the concert film "U2 3D"). Though reviled by critics, this creationist polemic with Ben Stein reached an audience hungry for its antiDarwinian message.
No distributor has been more invested in quality documentary films than THINKFilm. Its president, Mark Urman, estimates that 40 percent of its releases have been nonfiction. " 'Spellbound' made a ton of money, and we went on a binge," he says ruefully. "One thing I learned is that topicality doesn't sell a ticket." THINKFilm is still releasing nonfiction films, but only the most special ones—it's now distributing HBO's "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," after it has been shown on cable, and Werner Herzog's amazing "Encounters at the End of the World," which did sold-out business its first week in New York. The future of Urman's company, facing lawsuits from creditors it has been unable to pay, is up in the air.
The irony is that we are in the midst of a great era of documentaries—but the audience is a stay-at-home crowd, not the kids who rush out to watch superheroes blow stuff up. Millions watch documentaries on HBO, PBS and the Discovery Channel, and on DVDs. "They've come home to roost where they belong," says Sheila Nevins, the HBO documentary head often called the Queen of the Docs. "The graying of America may be bad for documentary and independent feature films, but it's good for television." Several million people, she claims, see even the lowest-rated documentaries shown on HBO. "You're paying for it, and you want to get your money's worth." In her 25 years at HBO she's seen an almost 300 percent increase in documentary films made. The ones about sex, she says, do the best.
The collapse of the theatrical market isn't only about documentaries. "They're just the canary in the mine shaft," says Moore. The whole world of independent-film distribution is in crisis. Warner Bros. recently shut down its two specialty divisions, Warner Independent and Picturehouse, and folded New Line into its larger corporate entity. Paramount is shutting down Vantage, its art-house division, as a separate entity. Outside investors and hedge-fund groups that rushed into movie financing are retreating fast, their hands bloodied with red ink. The foreign-film market has shrunk to a trickle. The market is in a period of adjustment: fewer movies will be made and released.
Moore thinks a large part of the problem is in the theaters themselves. To prove his point he cites the nonprofit art-house venue he's running in his hometown, Travers City, Mich. Putting his patrons' wishes first, Moore installed cushy seats, banned cell phones, provided state-of-the-art sound and projection—and kept down the price of popcorn. The result: small movies such as "Lars and the Real Girl," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and "I'm Not There" did better in this conservative Midwestern town than in most theaters in the country. So did many of the docs he's shown. "Going to the movies is an active experience," says Moore. "TV is passive."
THINKFilm's Urman still believes the right nonfiction film can succeed in theaters. It just has to be the first of its kind, or made by a marquee filmmaker. One such candidate is Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World." Shot in Antarctica, it's filled with breathtaking landscapes above and below the sea and populated by the fascinating, quirky outsiders who work at the McMurdo Station. Herzog's cranky, apocalyptic, mordantly funny narration ponders the survival of the human species—and his visions change the way you look at the world. On an awesomenees index, these sights outscore every computerized object hurled by the Hulk, Hancock or any other Hollywood superhero. There are some thrills only "the real" can provide. And as thrilling as they can be on your TV screen, on a big one they're even better.