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Moviegoers warm up to ‘Penguins’

Elaine Dutka Los Angeles Times

Who says there are no success stories in this summer of Hollywood’s discontent?

A little documentary about migrating penguins, of all things, has emerged as an unlikely star among the high-octane explosions, sexy gunplay and over-the-top special effects now dominating the cineplexes.

Around Hollywood, they’re calling it the “Penguin Movie.” And although it doesn’t offer any challenges to Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise in the leading-man department, the film nabbed at least one box-office bragging right two weekends ago: On a per-screen basis, ticket sales for “March of the Penguins” averaged $26,269 – compared with $19,719 for the overall box-office champ, “War of the Worlds.”

And no penguin had to jump on a couch or propose to a starlet to help the movie get there.

Of course, the $8 million film, an engrossing look at Antarctica’s emperor penguins and their arduous 70-mile trek to their breeding ground, is hardly a match for such blockbuster-hopefuls as “Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith,” “Bewitched,” “Batman Begins” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” which have been playing on thousands of screens across the country.

Yet “Penguins” – playing on only 75 screens nationwide – has been powered by strong reviews and good word-of-mouth, leading to odd scenes in which usually sparsely populated art-house theaters are bringing in portable seats to deal with overflow crowds.

Going into the weekend, since its opening June 24, the movie had taken in $745,480 in the United States and Canada.

The documentary is cutting across all demographics.

“It’s a date movie, a young person’s movie, an over-45 movie,” said Ted Mundorff, vice president and head film buyer for Landmark Theatres, which has booked the film into seven theaters in seven cities.

From an industry perspective, “Penguins” has been one of the few bright spots in a 19-week box-office slump – a stretch that has been as difficult for specialty films as for mainstream movies.

For the film’s domestic distributors – Warner Independent Pictures and National Geographic Films – it’s vindication of a release strategy deemed dicey from the start.

“Some people, internally and externally, thought it was counterintuitive to release a film about penguins in the summer,” said Steven Friedlander, executive vice president of Warner Independent Pictures.

Warner picked up the film during January’s Sundance Festival in the face of competition from Paramount Classics, Fox Searchlight and Roadside Attractions.

“We viewed it as quintessential counterprogramming,” Friedlander says. “That’s always a risk, of course, but looks great when it works.”

The box-office numbers, he adds, are running twice what the studio expected.

The film may increase to 500 or more screens down the road. If all goes well, it’s not unrealistic to think that “Penguins” could break the $10 million mark, Friedlander said – a bar surpassed by only a handful of documentaries: “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Super Size Me” and “Winged Migration” among them.

National Geographic, for its part, had been tracking the film since the 13-month shoot came to an end last year – more than a decade after director Luc Jacquet answered a classified ad for a biologist “ready to spend 14 months at the end of the world.”

Enamored with the emperor penguins discovered during that trip, he resolved to tell their story.

Braving searing winds, the penguins head for a spot where the ice is thick enough for them to procreate. There, the females find a male who cradles the egg in his foot until the female returns with food.

She must be back in time to feed her hatchling or the baby won’t survive.

“Far more than a nature documentary, this is a comedy, a drama and an incredible romance,” said Adam Leipzig, president of National Geographic Films, which also released the Oscar-nominated “The Story of the Weeping Camel” last year.

Living in a facility operated by the French Institute for Polar Research, Jacquet and his crew braved temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero to compile 140 hours of video for the 80-minute film.

“We knew that penguins would be considered funny – they have this droll quality about them,” said Jerome Maison, co-director of photography, in a phone interview from Paris. “But the public has become incredibly moved by what they go through and who they are.”

However, he added, “It was almost impossible to find anyone to finance the film.”

Jacquet ultimately persuaded Bonne Pioche, a Parisian production company, to fund the film, Maison said.

Although Warner and National Geographic were taken with the original version, which has been playing to solid business in France, they dropped the voice-over in which a mother, father and child “channeled” the penguins and instead used actor Morgan Freeman to narrate.

For Warner Independent, the film could be its highest-grossing yet, on track to top the $7 million brought in last year by “Before Sunset.”

The implication?

Says Friedlander: “Don’t discount a film because it doesn’t fit into a certain box. If a film is indescribable, it doesn’t mean it’s not marketable.”

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