Documentaries are back in -- True-to-life films like ''March of the Penguins'' are taking a lot of screen space

By Missy Schwartz
Updated August 12, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

When Antarctic birds outgross Jamie Foxx, it's safe to declare a documentary boom. At $26.4 million, March of the Penguins has speed-waddled up the charts to become the second-highest-grossing non-IMAX doc ever, and Mad Hot Ballroom is this year's Spellbound. But these wins may have wounded another art-house staple: foreign-language films.

In fact, there hasn't been a single non-English-lingo art flick to break the $1 million mark since France's Look at Me, released by Sony Pictures Classics in April. (China's Kung Fu Hustle was a recent success, but it was sold as an action film — an antidote to the subtitle stigma.) "Foreign films always have problems, but this summer documentaries have taken up a lot of screen space," says Ryan Werner, head of distribution at Wellspring, whose well-reviewed French thriller The Beat That My Heart Skipped has struggled to reach $1 million. "It's not like we're sitting in our office wondering if we should stop releasing them and switch to documentaries," he laughs, "but it's been frustrating."

Sony Classics co-president Tom Bernard, who has specialized in imports by the likes of Pedro Almodóvar, declines to blame the birds. "There just haven't been as many good foreign films," he says, adding that releases like his own 2046, the Wong Kar-Wai film that just opened well in four theaters, offer some hope.

Sarah Lash of IFC Films, which released the German drama The Edukators to lukewarm results, is more guarded. "Certain people [will always have] an aversion to reading subtitles on a Friday night," she says, "[especially] in this era when there's an understanding that docs are fun."

That penguin documentary, by the way? It's actually French. But there's not a subtitle to be found — and that may turn out to be summer's smartest business decision.