A documentary about a Long Island family embroiled in a pedophilia scandal isn't most people's idea of fun summer moviegoing. But thanks to the kind of stellar reviews that big-studio blockbusters can't match, Capturing the Friedmans has managed to find a mainstream audience. Ditto two other docs, Winged Migration and Spellbound. In recent weeks, all three have busted out of urban art houses to play in rural theaters and suburban multiplexes, and all three held their own over the July 4 weekend -- with Sony Pictures Classics' avian crowd-pleaser Winged Migration soaring 26 percent to a 12-week total of $4.7 million.
Perhaps verite pics can thank reality TV for making audiences more comfortable with unscripted, star-free stories, but they owe a greater debt to Michael Moore. The director's Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine took in a record-setting $21 million-plus. ''Columbine opened people up [to] documentaries,'' says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which bought Friedmans after it won the 2003 Sundance doc prize. ''It didn't feel like medicine. These films are crackling good stories that people can follow as if they were fictional stories.''
Ah, yes, the compelling narrative. ''The top summer movies are more mindless than ever,'' says SPC copresident Tom Bernard. ''It's pretty much explosions and cartoons. There hasn't been a Forrest Gump.'' Plus, Migration and spelling-bee drama Spellbound (both 2002 Oscar nominees) have the family-friendly G rating. Says Bernard, ''We're getting parents [who'd] like something educational for the children and interesting to them.''
While these movies will likely stretch their legs into fall (SPC predicts Migration will gross $10 million -- a good $2 million more than 1994's ballyhooed Hoop Dreams), what will it mean for future docs? ''That there are three highly successful [films] which are not cannibalizing one another is testament that [interest isn't] going to stop,'' says THINKFilm's Mark Urman, whose Spellbound has made doc shopping a priority. (This fall, THINKFilm will release Bus 174, about a bus hijacking in Rio.) But United Artists president Bingham Ray, who oversaw the acquisition of Columbine, is more cautious. ''Anything that's hot goes in cycles. This one will keep going as long as the subject is gripping and the film well made.''