"Fahrenheit" heats up documentary scene
July 3rd, 2004
By EMILY CHRISTENSEN, Courier Staff Writer WATERLOO - The recent success of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" can not be questioned. In just three days the film brought in almost $22 million playing on just 868 screens nationwide. "Fahrenheit" ticket sales were enough to send the flick to the top of the weekend box office list, a first for a documentary. But area movie experts say they don't expect to see other nonfiction films gain such instant notoriety "(Moore) has been in the public eye through his films, network television shows, books and speaking engagements for more than 15 years, and he brings that attention to each of his projects," says Chris Martin in an e-mail. Martin is a University of Northern Iowa associate professor in communication studies. "But his work still has to be compelling to succeed." Until now, most documentaries were relegated to niche cable channels, like the History Channel or even HBO. They did well there, but the cost of releasing them on the big screen was not worth the often small ticket revenues. Documentary topics are often too narrow to garner a theater following, says Chad Souder, manager of Crossroads 12 Theatres. But not all documentaries are created equal. Jeff Stein, an assistant professor of communication arts at Wartburg College, says many experts consider a documentary to take a neutral historian's perspective, something Moore has never claimed to be. Souder prefers to call Moore's film a "subjective documentary." "A truly objective documentary ends up being boring for most moviegoers," Souder says. Several documentaries will get the chance to prove their worth in the theater this summer. "American Heart and Soul," a Disney documentary some believe is in response to Moore's film, opens today. "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" arrives in theaters July 9. Other documentarians, like Kelly and Tammy Rundle, are pleased with Moore's success regardless of how it was obtained. The Rundles own Fourth Wall Films, a production company that focuses on documentaries, including many with Iowa roots. Kelly Rundle calls "Fahrenheit 9/11" a "definitive work as far as documentaries are concerned." The fact that it has done so well in the theaters is only icing on the cake, they say. "Theaters offer such a different experience. Whenever you see a movie with an audience ... it is meant to be a communal activity," says Kelly Rundle. "There have always been documentaries shown theatrically, but now instead of just getting it out in the major markets, they are getting the same wide release the latest Disney release would have." Kelly Rundle knows Moore's film won't guarantee him or his wife instant success, but he sees no downside to the coming of age of documentary films. "To some extent there is a hunger for something that is real and true. Even when you can say a movie is based on a true story, it can pique people's interest. I love a good dramatic film, but I love documentaries more," he says. But the infusion of real-time news may make it more difficult for future documentaries about current events to find an audience. Stein says most people won't want to see a nonfiction account of something they recently lived through, like Sept. 11 or the war in Iraq. Some older stories, like the bombing at Pearl Harbor or the assassination of John F. Kennedy, sometimes have an easier time finding a market with the younger generation. "If this allows others to tell their story ... then this is a good thing," Stein says. "But there is still a limited market for this. People will still have to lay down $6 or $7 or $8 to see a movie. Most will still choose entertainment over a documentary."
Source: Waterloo Courier