Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Nonfiction film turns a corner

Sick of dumbed-down movies, audiences are discovering a taste for documentaries, as Michael Moore's record-breaking `Fahrenheit 9/11' proves


Michael Moore is shown, right, in his new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, which has broken US box-office records for a documentary since its release last week. Despite, or because of, controversy surrounding the film, interest in the anti-George W. Bush diatribe is particularly high, forcing Hollywood to take a new look at the commercial potential of nonfiction films.


The record-breaking success of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 may mark a turning point in the acceptance of documentaries by audiences as mass entertainment and by movie distributors as potential profit centers.

This anti-Bush documentary is merely the latest and most successful of many feature-length documentaries that have hit it big at the box office in the last few years, among them the current release Super Size Me, about the perils of eating fast food, which has taken in close to US$10 million so far; Winged Migration, a nature film that took in US$11 million last year; and Spellbound, about spelling bees, which took in US$5.7 million.

Fahrenheit 9/11, the satirical critique of US President George W. Bush and his decision to go to war in Iraq, had earned US$56 million by Sunday, adding to the initial ticket sales that made it the highest-grossing feature-length documentary ever.

The sight of movie audiences lining up to see Moore's film, which the Walt Disney Company declined to distribute out of concern over its political nature, has not escaped the notice of Hollywood distributors, which have been growing receptive to the idea of documentaries in the last few years.

Howard Cohen, the co-president of Roadside Attractions, which is distributing Super Size Me, said: "Are documentaries going to be taken more seriously? The short answer is yes. But Michael Moore is still a special case. He's become a star, almost like any other star. That said, I do think audiences are getting used to going to documentaries in a way they haven't before."

Harvey Weinstein, the co-chairman of Miramax, who was instrumental in popularizing both independent and foreign films with broad audiences, agrees. "I think we're beginning to see the audience's fascination with nonfiction when its done well," said Weinstein, who bought Fahrenheit 9/11 back from Disney and released it independently.

"It reminds me of the breakthrough with Sex, Lies and Videotape for indie movies, and years later with Cinema Paradiso, all the way to Life Is Beautiful for foreign-language movies," he added. "There have been some moments in our film history where all of a sudden it has all changed."

Evolution of tastes

Some movie executives attribute the shift to the popularity of reality television and others to the expanding definition of documentaries to include narrative, nonfiction entertainment.

"It's part of an evolution that has been coming for quite some time," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which released Winged Migration and has the forthcoming Riding Giants, a feature-length documentary about big-wave surfing. "I think the success of reality television has made documentaries more a part of the mainstream, not just a kind of movie for intellectual aesthetes."

But it is also due, he said, to the high entertainment value of the latest group of documentaries. In Super Size Me, the filmmaker Morgan Spurlock makes a serious point while poking fun at fast-food culture by going on an all-McDonald's diet. Likewise, though Moore's latest film is intensely barbed, it shares the mocking tone and humorous, grandstanding gestures of his previous features, including Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine.

"One of the reasons that these films are doing so well at the theaters is this old strict rule -- that documentaries have to be pure reality -- has been thrown out the window," Barker said. "There's a much more flexible definition of a documentary. It includes what you'd read on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times."

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