Over at indieWIRE, Anthony Kaufman has an excellent piece up on Michael Moore's proposal that theaters across America designate a night each week at "Doc Night at the Movies." Citing the dismal box office returns for docs in the past year (only Moore's Sicko, No End in Sight, and In the Shadow of the Moon grossed over a million dollars), Kaufman seems intrigued by Moore's proposal, if somewhat skeptical it would work. Kaufman raises some interesting points about the feasibility of a "Doc Night," including these questions:
- Who will select the documentaries that are chosen? And on what basis will they be chosen?
- Will the documentaries already have distributors or not? Or will there be a mix?
- Will participating filmmakers pay a fee? Or conversely, will they get a split of the ticket sales?
- If most multiplexes are film-only, and the majority of documentaries are finished in a high-definition digital format, how will they be screened? Will expensive projectors be rented? Or will filmmakers need to pay for costly film transfers?
You can read Kaufman's full piece over on indieWIRE -- it's an excellent breakdown of what people in the film distrib and documentary world think about the idea. What I'm more interested in is whether having a "doc night" would actually drive regular moviegoers to get out to see docs in theaters. Aside from the occasional smash hit like March of the Penguins, even the very best docs don't tend to draw huge crowds outside of film festivals. I couldn't begin to list all the excellent docs I've seen over the past couple years that didn't make much at the box office, but if I was to make such a list, just a few of the films on it would be Lake of Fire, Jesus Camp, Favela Rising, Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room, War/Dance, For the Bible Tells Me So, Deliver Us from Evil, Nanking, Protagonist, Darius Goes West, The Listening Project, Beyond the Call, First Saturday in May, and, of course, King of Kong.
Is this because fest-goers tend to be more film-savvy and therefore are also more into being open to seeing documentaries? I think that's likely; look at the average crowd hitting your local multiplex on a weeknight. Are people who come out to see the latest blockbuster really likely to flip and see a doc instead? I suppose Moore is arguing that if more docs were made widely available, butts would fill seats to see them, in kind of a magical, "if you build it, they will come" sort of way, but I'm skeptical.
Partly, I tend to agree more with distributor and filmmaker Jeff Lipsky, interviewed for Kaufman's piece, that it's about marketing dollars, not availability. If big studios would put the marketing muscle behind docs like King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters that they do behind the latest Harry Potter film (as if that's gonna happen), more people might be aware of the films and therefore, would pay to see them in theaters. Part of me also thinks, though, that the average documentary subject matter is just inherently unappealing to your average person, and that no matter how much money you throw at them, or how excellent the films may be, you're just not going to draw big crowds to depressing Iraq war films (look at how many of them came out this year, and how few people went to see any of them, including No End in Sight, which was pretty well hyped, and Taxi to the Dark Side, which actually took a box office dip after its Oscar win).
I'm willing to be that when the results of the Cinema Eye Awards come out, the Audience Award is going to go to King of Kong, not because it's the unquestionably best film of the lot (although I loved it), but because it's accessible, it's fun, and it's one of the few docs to come out last year that wasn't depressing as hell. The economy sucks, the environment is screwed, the next president likely won't be able to get us fully out of Iraq, prices at the gas pump are high, people are losing their homes because they can't pay their mortgages, and so it goes. People pay to go to the movies, when they do go, to escape from the grimness of reality, not to be further mired in it. Sure, there are docu-dorks like myself who'd rather watch Lake of Fire than a popcorn flick, but for most folks? Give them a choice between a rom-com or an action flick versus a documentary about war, abortion, or homosexuality, and what are they going to pick?
Cinematical's readers are a pretty film-savvy lot, but even so, I'd be surprised if more than 15 percent of our regular readers actually saw more than five documentaries in the past year, unless they work in the business and are on the fest circuit. Maybe I'm wrong, I'd like to think so. Sound off and tell me what you think -- there are a couple of short polls below if you don't have the inclination to write a comment with your thoughts, but I'd love to see a rousing discussion about the documentaries -- why you see them, why you don't, and what it would take to get you to see more of them. The floor's yours -- discuss away.