It’s a story that’s fast becoming part of movie-industry mythology. At
Sundance this past January, at more or less the exact moment when most acquisitions
executives were jostling to get into a screening of Hustle & Flow, the
Memphis-set drama about a pimp who dreams of becoming a hip-hop star, Warner Independent
Pictures president Mark Gill, along with a couple of honchos from National Geographic
Films, queued up in the much shorter line for a wildlife documentary about Emperor
penguins, made by a French film crew that had weathered a year of sub-freezing
temperatures on location in Antarctica. Then called The Emperor’s Journey and
featuring an A-list cast of French actors voicing the “thoughts” of the on-screen
birds, the film (which, like Hustle, cost around $3 million to produce)
was acquired jointly by the two companies for a $1 million price tag. Hustle,
meanwhile, was bought by Paramount for a reported $9 million, plus a three-picture
deal for its writer-director, Craig Brewer.
Fast forward seven months and The Emperor’s Journey — rechristened March of the Penguins, re-dubbed with Morgan Freeman-voiced narration and given a new musical score — has become a veritable phenomenon at the U.S. box office, taking in more than $55 million to date and becoming (by a wide margin) the second highest-grossing documentary film of all time, after Fahrenheit 9/11. (How some American distributor has not yet snapped up the rights to another extraordinary French wildlife documentary, The Last Trapper, which could well become the next Penguins, is beyond anybody’s guess.) Hustle, meanwhile, has struggled to get to $20 million and is already gone from most cinemas, making it the latest victim of the so-called Sundance Syndrome, whereby mediocre films, greeted with overenthusiastic receptions by festival audiences, become the subjects of high-profile bidding wars that almost always end in buyer’s remorse. Proof positive that, at the high altitudes of Park City, Utah, many people simply aren’t getting enough oxygen to their brains. (All of which is probably a lot less disconcerting to those in power in Hollywood than the fact that Penguins’ domestic gross has also trounced that of two summer tentpoles with budgets in excess of $100 million: Stealth and The Island, both of which generated only about $30 million domestically and will be lucky to break even overseas.)
The delicious irony here is that March of the Penguins, which I only finally caught up with last week, is itself a movie about survival against insurmountable odds — be it a 70-mile trek across frigid Arctic expanses or that no-less-grueling endurance test that is the summer box-office derby. It may not be a great film, but as both entertainment and case study, it makes for an enormously pleasurable underdog story. And if you happen (as I do) to find Hustle & Flow a callow and loathsome minstrel show of a movie, that pleasure is doubled. Given that the two films aren’t aimed at even remotely the same audience, you might reasonably suggest that I’m making too much of their David-and-Goliath battle. But the thought is irresistible — Pimp vs. Penguins — and even Warner Independent seems to agree. In last week’s mail, I received a March of the Penguins T-shirt that features the movie’s title scrawled across the back in a mock-up of the Hustle & Flow poster art, while the front has a wide-eyed baby penguin situated atop this clever parody of one of Hustle’s original songs: “It’s Hot Out Here For a Penguin.” Movie tie-in items are a dime a dozen in this town, but this one’s a keeper. Best of all, you can make your own by printing out an iron-on decal from the “kids arcade” section of the official Penguins Web site. Of course, the Warners gang insists this is all in good fun and certainly not an attempt to rub salt in anyone’s wounds. Which I suppose it isn’t. It’s more like a snowball to the face.