The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Werner Herzog's 3-D doc makes a secret appearance in L.A.

September 22, 2010 | 12:46 pm

Werner_herzog Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" got tons of attention when it played to sold-out screenings up at the Toronto Film Festival last week, since every new Herzog documentary is something of an event, especially a groundbreaking doc like "Cave," which was shot in 3-D. But when the movie opened here in L.A. last weekend, where it's playing a one-week run at the Sunset 5 cineplex (playing in a 2-D version), it got zero attention. No reviews. No ads. No buzz at all.

In fact, when I went to see the film on Monday night, the theater it was playing in was deserted, with only one other person in the entire auditorium. The film's title wasn't even on the theater marquee. So what gives?

As it turns out, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which will be released sometime next year by IFC Films, was having what is known in the business as a stealth Oscar-qualifying run. With feature films, the academy rules state the film must play in New York or L.A. for a week before Dec. 31, so distributors are happy to make a big fuss about a qualifying run in late November or December, since academy members are already focused on awards-season contenders. But with documentaries, the academy has a different rule, requiring feature documentaries to play a weeklong commercial run either in L.A. County or the borough of Manhattan by Aug. 31. (In the case of "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," the film's producers received a waiver, allowing the film to have its qualifying run this week instead of in August, largely because the film wasn't finished.)

I have no idea why docs have to be released so much earlier for Oscar consideration than feature films. But since most academy members aren't thinking Oscar buzz in August, if you want your documentary to qualify for Oscar consideration--and you aren't ready to release it commercially at that time--you end up staging a stealth qualifying run, hoping to stay under the media radar until you're ready to have a real commercial release for your film. The documentary "Precious Life," about a Palestinian baby being treated by Israeli doctors for a rare disease, also just had a stealth qualifying run during the week of Sept. 10.

There's no hanky-panky going on here. Everyone is following the rule book. Since IFC just bought the Herzog film in Toronto last week, it couldn't possibly be ready to release the film commercially right away. But it does want all the media buzz that accompanies an Oscar nomination, which would reach its height early next year, when the film could conceivably be ready for release. So no one had any incentive in letting audiences know that "Cave" was actually playing here this week, especially since it's not playing in 3-D, which is part of what makes the film so unique.

Still, if you want a sneak peak at Herzog's fascinating new documentary, you can head down to the Sunset 5 and see it for yourself. Having been there myself the other night, I can pretty much guarantee you won't have any trouble getting a good seat.

Photo: Werner Herzog, left, and Peter Zeitlinger during the filming of "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."   Credit: Marc Valasella