'Man' walks boxoffice high wire

Petit film expands after big NY opening

Magnolia "Man:" It's ironic that it's getting tougher for theatrical documentaries to find their audiences at the same time that there are more and better documentaries to see than ever before.

A case in point is Magnolia Pictures' "Man On Wire," opening Aug. 8 in Los Angeles and 20 other top markets on some 50 screens while continuing in New York where it opened impressively July 25. Directed by James Marsh, it's the story of French daredevil performance artist Philippe Petit's high wire walk 34 years ago between the World Trade Center's twin towers.

"Man" had its world premiere last May at the Sundance Film Festival where it received the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award and the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize. It went on to play very successfully at the Tribeca Film Festival and at film festivals in Edinburgh and L.A. where it received Audience Awards.

It's an absolutely riveting film in which Marsh shares with us the extraordinary event on Aug. 7, 1974 when Petit did his high wire dance for 45 minutes, crossing eight times between the two towers 110 stories up without a safety net or harness before being arrested. As we see in "Man," Petit was no stranger to such work, having walked a wire between the gothic towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1971 and then crossing between the towers of Australia's Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973.

The Discovery Films and Magnolia Pictures presentation directed by James Marsh is based on Petit's book "To Reach the Clouds." "Man" was produced by Simon Chinn and executive produced by Jonathan Hewes. Among Marsh's previous films are the 1999 documentary "Wisconsin Death Trip," which brought him his second BAFTA award as well as his second Best Documentary prize from England's Royal Television Society, and "The King," an official selection at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

After enjoying an early look at "Man" I had the opportunity to focus with Magnolia president Eamonn Bowles on the film as well as the present state of documentary distribution in the U.S. "(Since) about a year and a half ago, doc performances theatrically have been getting harder and harder after a kind of golden era of theatrical docs," he told me. "But good films will always triumph so that's really why we went after this one."

What accounts for the change in audience interest in documentaries? "One of the reasons documentaries were accepted theatrically a little more by a larger group of people during the boom years is in some measure due to the proliferation of reality TV when it first started up," Bowles replied. "People realized there was something dramatic about watching everyday people. And strangely, I think, one of the reasons for the current downturn is also the proliferation of reality TV in that you can't get away from it (now) and they're all full of these 'eccentric' characters. I think that people get so much personality based reality TV that it's not novel when they go to theaters or it's something they actually kind of want to get away from."

There also have been, he noted, so many issue oriented documentaries that are "political in nature that I think those are getting harder to sell, as well. Something like 'Man On Wire' is really outside of that. It's more of an adventure tale that actually happened (and, therefore, has broader appeal than political docs do). Controversy and advocacy and political arguments are really not working at all --both in documentaries and in fiction. Theater has always been an escapist sort of venture, but it's profoundly so now. I really think people want to get away and just get entertained. In this time period right now they're not looking for issues or enlightenment or whatever."

That is, of course, exactly what "Man" delivers and audiences in New York responded very favorably when it opened there July 25 to a hefty first weekend gross of $51,392 at two theaters and over $85,000 for its first full week. It had the year's strongest opening weekend for any documentary and the fifth highest per screen opening ($25,696) for any documentary released in the past five years.

"It was in Sundance this year and, to be honest, I remembered the Philippe Petit episode (from 1974)," Bowles said. "I didn't know how interesting the film was going to be and I didn't have a tremendous desire to see it. Then when I saw it I was absolutely wowed. I just thought it was a fantastic film. I think it's really one of the best made documentaries I've seen in a long time."

That view has been echoed by the critics, he added: "The reviews have been absolutely unbelievable, which is really helping us greatly. I'd be shocked if it wasn't on an incredible amount of Top Ten lists at the end of the year. Quite a number of reviews have called it 'the best film of the year.'"

It's impressive that even though we know Petit didn't fall to his death from his high wire, the film still keeps us on the edge of our seats. "I think that's an absolute testament to the skill with which the film is made," Bowles agreed. "It is absolutely a white knuckle experience and you know that he made it over. They're telling you about it and you're still absolutely gripped with tension and excitement."

Asked what his thoughts were about marketing "Man" when he first saw it, Bowles explained, "One of the things that was important to us was just to get this in front of audiences. I can't say there was any sort of core audience for the film as far as the subject matter. I don't think you have a society of wire walker appreciators or anything like that to tap into. But when you saw the film you knew that it had so many resonances and when we showed it to people they just responded so strongly. So we tried to screen the film quite a bit just to get it in front of people and that seemed to have paid off. It did incredibly well in the Tribeca Film Festival. It had six completely sold out shows right away and that word of mouth helped us a lot in New York and I think in general."

In screening the film, he said, Magnolia targeted "people we felt were influencers, talk show hosts, radio hosts, TV anchors all around the country and screening it for people like that who would have a forum or could influence editorially what their paper or station could cover. The thing with the film is you really have to see it to appreciate all its greatness."

Although "Man" takes place in 1974, we see it today through our post-9/11 eyes so we know the World Trade Center is sadly no longer there. As we view the footage of the high wire walking group using fake IDs to gain admittance to the Twin Towers we can't help but think how easy it would have been for terrorists to do the same. We know Petit and his group weren't going to harm anyone, but we still can't help thinking of what others ultimately did to those towers in 2001.

"I didn't want this to be a film about 9/11," Bowles observed. "Luckily, the filmmaker handled it, I think, in the most beautiful way possible. He just doesn't refer to it. And yet there are shots and scenes in the film where you almost gasp at recognition -- like there's a shot of them building the World Trade Center in the early stages and it looks like Ground Zero right now. It's a moment where you almost let out an audible gasp at it and then you realize, 'Oh, my God, that's what it was when it was being built.'"

Without big bucks to plow into advertising "Man," Magnolia is taking the traditional marketing route that independent distributors typically follow. "Word of mouth is our biggest friend," Bowles emphasized. "Screening it like crazy and getting it in front of a bunch of people was really, really important. And the fact of the matter is that getting editorial space has been (easy). As soon as people saw the film they were great (about covering it). So it's been a real publicity bonanza. We've luckily been able to have Philippe Petit do a lot of interviews and James Marsh (has done them), as well."

Bowles tips his hat to Marsh's filmmaking, pointing out that, "The film has so many different resonances. There's the resonance of the friendship and the whole aspect of the 9/11 (tragedy) lurking over everything.  Forget about just the regular story, but all these other elements -- the sort of oddball cast of characters and the evocation of the times -- really are brought out. The film is so deep and so complex and so satisfying on so many levels. I think he really got all the great interesting aspects of this story out onto the screen."

Where did all that great footage in "Man" come from? "The film of them training (was shot because) they had had a camera and were planning to make a film of the whole thing," he replied. "At some point (they) realized, 'Well, you can either break in and rob the bank or you can make a film of robbing a bank. You can't do both.' There was no footage (shot) at the World Trade Center. That was all photographs, but people think they're seeing footage. It's funny because when I saw it I wasn't sure if I had seen footage or not. But it's all still photographs when he's out on the wire and up on the roof. Basically, (the photos of Petit were shot by) the co-conspirators who are being interviewed in the film.

"In fact, they brought a movie camera with them, but they were so tired after lugging all that cable up during the night. They were so worn out they didn't pick up the movie camera to photograph him walking (on the wire). In the beginning they thought they were going to do a movie of the whole event, but then they dropped it when they realized how impractical it was to actually try to film a movie as they were trying to do all this clandestine (activity)."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com