Miércoles 28 de Septiembre de 2005, Ip nº 128

Compared With Their Filmmakers, the Penguins Have It Easy
Por Doreen Carvajal

The long journey to create and sell the film "March of the Penguins" was as pitiless as the ice-desert migration of the emperor penguins that waddled to cinematic triumph in this sleeper hit of a documentary.

Bonne Pioche, the French company that produced the movie, struggled to avoid bankruptcy while the film was being made and confronted near disaster when its two cameramen were trapped in a deadly Antarctic blizzard. And later it faced new perils: Hollywood backbiting and French film-industry politicking.

"I always kept the image in my mind of the long march and the struggle to survive," said Yves Darondeau, 40, one of three partners in Bonne Pioche. "Like the emperor penguin, we huddled together for warmth. It was extremely difficult, complicated, risky and full of anguish."

Fortunately, the resilient three-foot-high penguins flourish in blizzards, gale-force winds and multiplex theaters. This low-budget film now ranks as the second-highest-grossing feature-length documentary, after "Fahrenheit 9/11," with almost $71 million in box-office receipts in the United States and a DVD version due out on Nov. 29. And that success is raising hopes that penguins can blaze an ice trail for other documentaries created with the tense pace of Hollywood feature films.

"March of the Penguins" leads a wave of documentary films that surfaced this year to critical acclaim, like "Mad Hot Ballroom," a story of New York public school students learning to tango and rumba, and "Murderball," which focuses on a team of rough and tumble wheelchair rugby players. The new-found popularity has given filmmakers more confidence about the future, but financing remains elusive. One reason for optimism is the rapid development of new digital movie networks in many countries; they are intended to nurture specialty markets and slash film printing costs - an expense that has long stymied distributors and filmmakers. The networks, supported by a mix of public and private money, basically supply heavily subsidized digital projectors to theaters to entice exhibitors to show documentaries and non-Hollywood fare.

"The word 'documentary' used to make people shiver," said Kees Ryninks, co-founder of CinemaNet, one of the new networks, which has installed digital projectors in 140 theaters in Europe. Theatergoers initially seemed to shun documentaries after Sept. 11, he said, but they now hunger for movies exploring social and political themes that they cannot see on television. He credits films like "Penguins," "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Super Size Me" for transforming conceptions about "a boring genre into an exciting one."

Enthusiasm, however, does not necessarily equal financing. "There's certainly nobody knocking down the doors, but moving forward there are definitely more opportunities for television and cable," said Heather Winters, the New York producer of "Super Size Me," a film about its director's monthlong experience living on a steady diet of McDonald's meals. Ms. Winters is producing another documentary, "Class Act," which explores American arts education through an eccentric former drama teacher and philanthropist, Jay W. Jensen, and his past students, including the actor Andy Garcia. "We self-financed, but it was blood, sweat and tears to make the money," she said, adding that it would have been impossible to find money for the documentary from other sources.

One towering hurdle for documentary producers is the nearly $25,000 cost of paying for the initial development of a 35-millimeter negative, the master print, which is then used to make other single copies. The expense nearly brought "March of the Penguins" to an ice-crunching halt. With a limited season in which the camera crew could reach the Antarctic penguin colony by a 10-day voyage, Bonne Pioche moved quickly to invest 500,000 euros ($602,500) in the film. It lacked traditional financing from a distributor, a pay-television deal or French government subsidies. That was because it lacked anything to show and entice potential financiers, Mr. Darondeau said. The camera crew, literally marooned in the Antarctic for almost a year because of weather conditions, could not get their film out until they returned, he said.

"This film is a challenge from the beginning to the end," said Luc Jacquet, the film's director, who is now writing the script for his next film about the relationship between a young girl and a fox. "We were so close to the goal. Even if you have no money, if you give energy to a film, it will eventually seduce a financial partner."

Their lowest moment, according to Messrs. Darondeau and Jacquet, was when the film's two-man camera crew, Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison, nearly froze to death in a snowstorm last autumn and were rescued through satellite tracking devices. Filming stopped for nearly a month for the two men to recover from severe frostbite, broken bones and wind burns. But once they returned, the company teetered toward bankruptcy and a new disaster loomed: "We were at the limit and couldn't afford to pay to develop the film," recalled Mr. Darondeau, who said they recovered by creating a three-minute reel to show distributors.

Eventually the film, which cost more than 2 million euros ($2,410,000) to produce, was acquired for North American distribution by Warner Independent Pictures and National Geographic Feature Films. They spent more than $1 million on the film, beating Disney's Buena Vista, which holds a 20 percent interest in the French version.

The new distributors decided to modify the movie, according to Adam Leipzig, president of National Geographic Feature Films, who said that otherwise the film "would have been purely an art-house movie."

The cutting-edge electronic soundtrack in the French version was replaced with a symphonic score by Alex Wurman, and the soft voices of three penguin characters were substituted with classic wildlife narration by the gravel-voiced Morgan Freeman. The title was changed from "La Marche de l'Empereur," "March of the Emperor."

"Going from voices of a mommy, daddy and baby penguin to a storyteller telling a story," Mr. Leipzig said, "is a significant shift." Bonne Pioche, whose name means a lucky card hand, accepted those changes to reach a broader market. But Mr. Jacquet pointed out that the French style was intact for international audiences like those in China, where the movie has also been popular.

"The American version is a little less creative," Mr. Jacquet said. "You design something with a special point of view, and this special point of view still exists, but less creatively."

The issue led to one more challenge in the French filmmakers' arduous passage: negotiating film-industry politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Mr. Darondeau said that he hoped France would nominate the French version for an Oscar in the foreign-language film category, and that he expected Warner Independent Pictures to submit the American version as a documentary.

But last week, his hopes were dashed when the news broke that France had instead nominated a World War I drama in limited release, "Joyeux Noël" ("Merry Christmas"). The movie trade magazine Screen Daily described a behind-the-scenes struggle, as some French producers publicly complained, noting that that film had barely met the release dates required to qualify for a nomination.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, the jockeying for credit on "March of the Penguins" was taking place. Last month, Jordan Roberts, a film director turned writer, claimed credit in a Los Angeles Times article for essentially "re-envisioning" the film by writing the narration and substituting a new soundtrack.

Mr. Jacquet scoffs at that view. "There are millions of people around the planet who like the French version, my version," he said with a laugh. And like the penguin stars of the movie, Mr. Jacquet has never met Mr. Roberts.


  28/09/2005. The New York Times.