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 says.
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 underground artist Robert Crumb, it will come from ''Crumb'' T-shirts sold at theaters.
''I kept the merchandising rights,'' Mr. 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 and 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 recently released ''Moving the Mountain,'' Apted's look at 1989's Tiananmen Square protest. Miramax Films has ''Unzipped,'' which follows fashion designer Issac Mizrahi, in August. Samuel Goldwyn will release the musical, pop-art story ''Wigstock: The Movie'' on June 9. And Sony Pictures Classics is now showing the documentary ''Crumb'' in 12 cities.
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 many years making the movie.
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. But Zwigoff is 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,'' he says. ''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.''
Apted and Zwigoff say that ''Hoop Dreams'' has helped spark considerable interest in documentaries. They both caution, though, that so much money was spent promoting the film that 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.
If future documentaries are to thrive, Zwigoff says, they must address the realities of the marketplace and be diverting.