Documentaries a hit with audiences, accountants

'The Tillman Story' and 'Countdown to Zero' are among several highly anticipated feature documentaries premiering this summer. Studios have cut back on the number of films they produce, and theaters have converted to digital, making it easier to get small films screened.

Chris Pizzello/AP
Josh Brolin, narrator of 'The Tillman Story,' talks to reporters before a screening of the film in Los Angeles.

While “The Expendables" and “Eat Pray Love” linger in the multiplex this weekend, some moviegoers who want more challenging fare than big guns or Balinese romance have a few more options. Two feature documentaries – “A Film Unfinished,” about Nazi propaganda, and “The Tillman Story,” the chronicle of the NFL star-turned-soldier – arrive at the same time as the Hubble Imax film expands into 96 theaters nationwide.

This feastlet of non-fiction films is part of a larger summer mini-banquet being enjoyed by lovers of the genre.

More than 20 feature documentaries are playing in theaters across the US this summer. The buzz began with a quirky profile of comic Joan Rivers and continues into the fall with “Countdown to Zero,” the next project from the makers of the Al Gore docu-hit “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Expect more of the same, says author Patricia Aufderheide (“Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction”). “There is a growing hunger for content on all screens from cable to the movie theaters,” says the American University professor, “and the audience for feature documentaries has been underserved in the past.”

She points out that when the film service Netflix first opened its doors, the thirst for non-fiction films startled the company.

Filmmaker Ray Griggs says changes in technology, the film industry business structure, and consumer attitudes toward entertainment are driving the boom. His “I want your Money,” a self-described conservative take on the Obama administration, arrives in 500 theaters October 15. The project is self-financed and budgeted under a million dollars.

Mr Griggs found his own distributor and raised the money for both film and digital prints of the movie. These days, he says, with digital equipment so cheap and easy to use and a growing number of distributors willing to deal directly with small filmmakers, a first-time documentarian can negotiate a theatrical run without first being picked up by a major studio.

Studios have cut back on their film slates during the recession, he says, “but theaters still need product.”

The growing number of digital theaters also translates into lower upfront costs for aspiring filmmakers who must pay for every film print – his cost: $6,000 each for some 200 copies – but a single digital print can play in as many as 2,000 theaters.

Even more important than technical shifts, though, is the shift he sees in consumer attitudes. “People want their entertainment to mean more,” Griggs says. “Sure they’re happy to eat popcorn and watch explosions too, but with so much happening in the world, more and more people are willing to pay $12 and leave the theater feeling like they learned something.”

This kind of personal passion has helped transform the documentary from a sleepy educational product to a must-see event for an increasing number of film lovers, says critic Dave White.

Michael Moore showed both Hollywood and audiences that a movie based on “real people and places” could be just as entertaining as a fiction film, he says, “and reality TV has pretty much established the idea that even people who drive ice trucks can be interesting to watch.”

Note that many documentaries start in limited release and roll out slowly across the country.

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