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Jewish World Review July 15, 1999 /2 Av, 5759

Ben and Daniel Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Ben Wattenberg


Hollywood ignores non-fiction features -- HAVE YOU SEEN the film "Buena Vista Social Club" yet? Probably not. In fact, chances are you won't get to see it on a large screen in the theater.

German Director Wim Wenders' documentary about the triumphant second act of a group of weathered and largely forgotten Cuban musicians satisfies its documentary obligations through a series or oral histories.

But don't let that scare you. The music sizzles, the characters are memorably endearing, and the story of how these survivors return to the stage and studio as the "Buena Vista Social Club" could have been successfully pitched as fiction -- "The Commitments" in Havana, with cute senior citizens.

Its cast includes baggy-eyed balladeer Ibrahim Ferrer, who had long since fallen out of fashion. When he wasn't shining shoes, he was plying his household icon of St. Lazarus with rum ("I like it, and I like to suppose he does, too"). Then, he was hauled into the recording studio for the record that would win a Grammy. American guitarist-producer Ry Cooder calls him the "Cuban Nat King Cole."

And keep your grandmothers away from Compay Segundo. At 90, the likably lubricious singer-guitarist is prescribing hangover cure-alls (fry some chicken necks and, after they stop bleeding, add garlic) and writing songs about being "aroused" by women on the beach ("How her bottom shook!").

Despite critical raves, enthusiastic word of mouth and a platinum album, "Buena Vista" is playing at just a single, cramped art house in Washington, D.C. A recent Saturday matinee was sold out, and the audience sat through the closing credits the way they do when they have been affected.

Nationwide, it is playing in just 29 theaters and averaging $8,100 per theater, one of the highest per-screen averages of any film in current release.

Every year or so, it seems like some under-marketed and under-exhibited documentary generates enough critical buzz and public enthusiasm to break out of the art-house ghetto and achieve mainstream commercial success.

So why doesn't Hollywood produce more non-fiction features, promote them more heavily and distribute them more widely?

Despite the glamour, feature-film production is not a great business.

Production and marketing costs are high and growing, profits are thin by the standards of other industries, and the studios are now looking for new ways to cut costs and limit risks.

One would think that documentaries are an obvious low-cost alternative, given their track record in recent years. A list of unlikely recent non-fiction feature hits (with their domestic box-office totals) might include "Roger and Me" ($8 million), "Hoop Dreams" ($7.8 million), "Truth or Dare" ($15 million), "When We Were Kings" ($2.3 million), "Crumb" ($3.5 million), and "Unzipped" ($2.8 million).

Documentaries are cheap to make. "Unzipped," for example, cost just a million to produce. And like "Buena Vista Social Club," these documentaries have often attained strikingly high per-screen averages in limited release.

(Their per-screen averages have tended to fall as the number of screens has risen -- just like they do for entertainment features.)

Conventional wisdom holds that documentaries deal with esoteric subjects for niche-markets, they lack the stars who can successfully "open" movies, and they do not travel well internationally. And, as "Buena Vista" distributor Artisan Entertainment's Steve Rothenberg puts it, even the rare profitable documentary is a "bunt single" in a market where $100 million in domestic box office and that much again from foreign distribution is no longer unusual.

Esoteric subjects? Documentaries like "Hoop Dreams" and "Buena Vista Social Club" break out of the art house precisely because the universality of their themes -- the disappointment of youthful dreams in the former, belated fulfillment in the latter -- transcends their particular settings.

No stars? "When We Were Kings" starred Muhammad Ali. "Truth or Dare" starred Madonna. They don't "travel"? "Buena Vista" is a film directed by a German about a racially mixed, Spanish-language Cuban band that has recorded an album that has sold more than a million units worldwide.

And remember -- these grosses have been achieved despite negligible promotion and extremely limited, typically urban, releases. When was the last time you saw a trailer for a documentary in the coming attractions? Given the lack of big promotional pushes, the argument that documentaries don't make big money is circular.

It is true that no documentary has yet earned $30 million or $40 million, and until one does, we are not likely to see any receive the production or marketing budgets routinely allocated to fictional features.

But in the meantime, I would be happy to take some points on, say, the Mexican grosses of "Buena Vista Social Club" -- if Hollywood doesn't want them.

JWR contributor Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may reach him by clicking here. Daniel Wattenberg, who wrote this week's column, is a contributing editor for and George.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate