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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 13:20 EDT

‘Penguins’ march defies summer box office trend

July 28, 2005

By Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – At summer film box offices plagued by slow ticket sales, the hottest documentary this year is about a very cold topic: Emperor Penguins in Antarctica.

“March of the Penguins” is rising fast up the charts and on Thursday is expected to top $12 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales, said Mark Gill, president of domestic distributor, Warner Independent Pictures.

This week, the cinematic tale of the penguins’ mating season will surpass hits “Winged Migration” and “Super Size Me” to become the fourth highest-grossing documentary of all time in domestic theaters, according to box office trackers.

Concert film, “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” at $15 million, looks destined to succumb, and even No. 2 “Bowling for Columbine,” director Michael Moore’s Oscar-winner, at $21.6 million could be beaten when “March of the Penguins” expands to 1,400 theaters on Aug. 5 from just under 700 currently.

“It definitely has a shot (at ‘Bowling for Columbine’),” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracking company Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.

“This is a breath of fresh air in terms of positive news on the box office front, and it also shows that people want something different. They want something unique,” he added.

The No. 1 documentary is Moore’s 2004 hit “Fahrenheit 9/11″ at $120 million, which most industry watchers agree is an anomaly.

“March of the Penguins” tosses away old rules of documentary-making to become more like a narrative feature film with different story lines, plot twists and characters.

The story follows the Emperor Penguins on a long march across frozen expanses from their summer feeding grounds to their winter mating arena. Audiences watch the penguins pair off, the female bear an egg and the male carry it on his feet to keep it from freezing until it hatches.

French director Luc Jacquet, whose four-man crew spent 14 months in Antarctica filming the penguins, likens the film to an Impressionist painting. “I wanted to tell a story that would capture emotional involvement,” he said.

In the French version, actors’ voices were used to speak the penguin roles much like an animated movie and French pop music was used for the score. Neither, however, worked for U.S. audiences, according to Gill.

For the English version, the distributors trimmed the movie by about five minutes, hired noted screenwriter Jordan Roberts to produce a narration that is read by Morgan Freeman, and commissioned Alex Wurman to write a symphonic score.

“All that seems to have made a difference,” Gill said. “What really works is when you get a movie that people are so adamant about that they force their friends to go, and that’s what this is. You get one or two of those a year.”