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Documentaries A Tough Sell Even With Critical Acclaim

With $7.8 million in ticket sales, “Hoop Dreams” proved there’s an audience for documentary features. Yet that popularity has not bestowed new power on nonfiction filmmakers, who say it’s still difficult bringing documentaries to theaters.

“It’s murderous,” says veteran filmmaker Michael Apted, whose documentary credits include “28-Up” and “Incident at Oglala.”

“I don’t know how people can make a living doing it,” he said.

The major studios avoid documentaries, leaving independent film companies to release the steady stream of new documentaries that idealistic directors keep churning out. Without great reviews, however, these movies can disappear from theaters in a flash, and most documentaries don’t even get that far.

Profits are elusive and often the best result is breaking even. Director Terry Zwigoff hasn’t yet made much of anything from his film, the critically acclaimed documentary “Crumb.” If there’s a nickel to pocket from the movie about artist Robert Crumb and his family, it will come from “Crumb” T-shirts sold at theaters.

“I kept the merchandising rights,” Zwigoff says.

For all the risks, the rewards of “Hoop Dreams” have made documentaries more appealing than they once were. Its box-office gross trails the “Endless Summer” surfing and Warren Miller ski documentaries, but “Hoop Dreams” has collected over $1 million more than 1989’s “Roger & Me.” The three-hour high school basketball story also has sold nearly 130,000 videocassettes.

In part buoyed by those numbers, several smaller companies will release nonfiction films in the coming months.

October Films is releasing “Moving the Mountain,” Apted’s look at 1989’s Tiananmen Square protest, on May 26. Miramax Films has “Unzipped,” which follows fashion designer Issac Mizrahi, on Aug. 29. Samuel Goldwyn will release the music-pop art story “Wigstock: The Movie” on June 9.

Sony Pictures Classics is now showing the documentary “Crumb” in a dozen cities. And Tara Releasing, which specializes in nonfiction movies, will roll out the racial identity story “Black Is, Black Ain’t” this fall.

In limited release, “Crumb” has performed well, making more than $300,000 in three weeks. Its relatively prosperous start belies its nearly fruitless trip to theaters.

“I just couldn’t convince anyone that this was an interesting film,” says Zwigoff, who spent close to 10 years making the movie. Zwigoff failed putting “Crumb” in last year’s Telluride Film Festival (“This is terrible,” the festival told him), and the director started doubting his own work.

Desperate, he added a concocted photo shoot where Crumb mixes with scantily clad women. “And people said, ‘OK. We can sell it now,”’ Zwigoff recalls.

The film has attracted some of the best reviews of the year. Zwigoff is nevertheless unsure “Crumb” will appeal to moviegoers fond of escapism and good-looking stars - not an underground cartoonist and his weird family.

“That’s a problem with a lot of documentaries. When you go see a movie you want to get away from it all,” Zwigoff says.

Not surprisingly, the narrower a film’s focus the more laborious it is to sell.

“It was very difficult to raise the money to make the film. People feared it would be a lot of Chinese people babbling,” Apted says of “Moving the Mountain.”

The movie is a polished study of courage, commitment and oppression. Once Apted was able to film a 10-minute demonstration reel highlighting those elements, he was able to raise enough money to finish the movie.

Apted, whose recent dramatic film credits were “Nell,” “Blink” and “Thunderheart,” says documentaries shouldn’t be measured with the same yardstick held to Hollywood features.

“It’s impossible to make money on documentaries,” says Apted. “It’s more about citizenship - it’s not about making money. The best you can hope to do is break even.”

Apted made “Moving the Mountain,” he says, “because you want to influence politics - you’re hoping to have some influence in the way Western leaders think about China. Maybe George Stephanopoulos will see it and show 10 minutes to President Clinton.”

Apted and Zwigoff say “Hoop Dreams” has helped spark considerable interest in documentaries. They both caution, though, that so much money was spent promoting the film it either was unprofitable or managed just a mild gain. Fine Line Features, the distributor for “Hoop Dreams,” says the movie made money, but won’t say how much.

The small companies handling documentaries don’t always have to collect huge receipts to succeed. Tara says that its bluegrass documentary “High Lonesome” has brought in about $200,000 during the last two years while “Berkeley in the ‘60s” has earned $500,000.

Still, there are plenty of recent documentaries that failed to connect. “Martha and Ethel,” a story about two nannies, disappeared instantly earlier this year, and Apted’s “Incident at Oglala,” chronicling Native American Leonard Peltier, was a dud following its 1992 debut.


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