After four strong weeks in limited release, distributor Warner Independent Pictures expanded March of the Penguins to 695 theaters, making it the fourth traditional documentary on record to reach national release after Fahrenheit 9/11, Tupac: Resurrection and Madonna: Truth or Dare.
The nature documentary, which follows the Emperor penguins in their annual breeding trek across Antarctica, drew $4.4 million over the weekend, averaging a promising $6,305 per site. The total climbed to $9.3 million after 31 days, ranking as the sixth highest grossing documentary. Based on the weekend performance, Warner Independent will increase the picture's theater count to over 1,200 on Aug. 5
"By the end of this week, we'll pass Winged Migration to become the highest grossing non-R-rated documentary," said Warner Independent's executive vice president of distribution, Steven Friedlander. "And it looks like we'll surpass Bowling for Columbine to be the second biggest documentary ever."
Warner Independent bought the distribution rights to the French production directed by Luc Jacquet for less than a million dollars. After watching the audience grow in limited release, the distributor made the bold decision to play the picture nationwide on July 22, including a television ad campaign.
"One of the things that works so well [with TV ads] is that we can get the message across in 15 seconds, because there is no story to present, cast to list, etc." Friedlander explained. "It doesn't take the usual 30 seconds to whet someone's appetite—you have the images of the baby penguins and the ice, maybe a snippet of the Morgan Freeman narration—which doubles the amount of TV spots you can buy. And our budget is already a pittance compared to other movies. Normally, with other movies, actors are contractually obligated to be in shots or have lines [of dialogue] in the ads. Not so with penguins."
The avian way is becoming a trend for documentary success. In 2003, Sony Pictures Classics' Winged Migration, another instance of French bird-watching, quietly became one of the most successful documentaries of all time, making $11.7 million. This year's The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill has racked up $2.7 million so far for small distributor Shadow Distribution.
Penguins are making waves elsewhere. The paranoid lot in DreamWorks' Madagascar were the highlights of that picture's marketing, and Warner Bros. is producing a computer-animated feature about Emperor penguins called Happy Feet, due Christmas 2006.
• 7/24/05 - 'Island' Deserted, 'Chocolate Factory,' 'Wedding' Take Cake
• 5/31/05 - 'Star Wars' Edges Out Computerized Critters and Secondhand Convicts
• 6/28/04 - 'Fahrenheit 9/11' Ignites Box Office Passion
• Weekend Box Office Results
NOTE: This report was originally published on Sunday, July 24 and was updated on Monday, July 25 with actual grosses.