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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Fighting for Recognition: ‘Tyson’ at Sundance

James Toback

Mike Tyson in the documentary "Tyson," which is being shown at the Sundance Film Festival. More Photos >

Published: January 18, 2009

PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival always has much on its plate. And one of the jobs served up this year involves feeding Mike Tyson.

Shea Walsh/Associated Press

Mike Tyson on Main Street in Park City, Utah, for Sundance. More Photos »

On Saturday night, John Besh, the New Orleans restaurateur, was preparing to do exactly that at Bon Appétit’s temporary supper club, which is perched on a slight rise above the party tents on Main Street here.

The menu was built around Kobe beef short ribs stripped from the bone and cooked for 26 hours at precisely 141 degrees. “Since we’re cooking for Mike Tyson, I wanted big blows for the palate but also some food for the soul,” Mr. Besh said, shortly before pouring the soupe de poisson with blue crab and tapioca.

The idea is not so much to sate the appetite of Mr. Tyson, a 42-year-old former boxer who has been in and out of jail, as to create a bit of theater around a documentary film about him.

The movie, “Tyson,” directed by James Toback, screened earlier on Saturday to a packed house of about 450 at a the town library, where the film was screened. Mr. Tyson spoke briefly afterward, but the real event was simply his presence.

“Mike Tyson’s coming in!” Pierce Brosnan said as he left the supper club from an earlier dinner honoring his own movie, “The Greatest,” shortly before Mr. Tyson walked in through a crowd of gawkers.

The new film tries mightily to find a redemption story in Mr. Tyson’s rise, fall and reconciliation with his demons. “The regeneration, reconstruction and rehabilitation of a great spirit is always possible,” Mr. Toback said, summing up his movie’s moral during cocktail hour at the supper club.

Still, Mr. Tyson appears to remain more spectacle than morality tale, which is not altogether a bad thing as far as Sundance is concerned.

One of the festival’s jobs, bluntly put, is to sell documentaries. In one of the “Storytime” memory reels attached to the beginning of each screening here, Robert Redford, the festival’s patriarch, muses of documentaries: “What if we use the festival to promote them on an equal footing with theatrical films?”

The key word is promote, and it is not necessarily a dirty one. Despite a supposed marketplace surge that came with the runaway success of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” in 2004, documentaries generally remain a poor relation at the box office.

Many of the art form’s bigger box-office hits have been political. Those include Mr. Moore’s “Sicko” and “Bowling for Columbine,” as well as Davis Guggenheim’s “Inconvenient Truth,” the global warming film with Al Gore.

Every once in a while a nonpolitical specimen breaks the rules by doing as well as any other kind of feature film. The last such example was “March of the Penguins,” which took in $77 million at the domestic box office after Warner Independent Pictures released it in 2005.

But the record has been much spottier for most documentaries. Sony Pictures Classics, which only days ago acquired rights to distribute “Tyson,” in the last couple of years released “Waltz With Bashir,” “Jimmy Carter, Man From Plains” and “My Kid Could Paint That,” none of which has topped $1 million at the box office, although “Waltz With Bashir,” which won a Golden Globe award, is still playing.

“Nine months ago we were thinking we weren’t going to do any more documentaries,” said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, speaking at the same reception. “Then you see a film like this.”

Where “Tyson” is concerned, Sundance has some work to do. The festival is supposed to reignite interest in a movie that’s been around for a while: It has screened at a number of festivals, including Cannes, where Mr. Tyson and Mr. Toback did some heavy selling last May.

On a large scale, Sundance is supposed to use its promotional tricks — among them, feeding the 90 movie and media types at this dinner — to convince people that there really is something appetizing about real-life stories told, on the whole, with fidelity to the facts.

For Mr. Barker, the next step is to begin releasing “Tyson” in theaters on April 24. The plan, he said, is to cultivate both the art-house crowd and African-American viewers, aiming for a crossover hit like “Hoop Dreams,” a 1994 basketball documentary that took in $7.8 million.

If Mr. Tyson caused excitement on Saturday night, the same sort of sizzle was in the air that morning, when several hundred festival-goers started lining up four hours early at the Har Shalom Temple’s theater for a look at “The September Issue,” another documentary. That one follows the fashion editor Anna Wintour as she assembles the September 2007 issue of Vogue magazine.

Theatrical rights to “The September Issue” are for sale here by the Creative Artists Agency, so even Ms. Wintour, whose legendary lack of warmth is a theme in the film, had some promoting to do.

Tucked inside a jacket edged with a big fur collar, she took questions from John Cooper, the festival’s director of programming, on Saturday.

Mr. Cooper asked Ms. Wintour about the experience of watching underlings dissect her vision and decisions on screen, not always in flattering ways. “There wasn’t much in there I didn’t know before,” she said.

“Do you like it?” Mr. Cooper persisted, referring to the film, which was directed by R. J. Cutler, a producer of “The War Room,” about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.

“It’s quite hard to look at oneself in such an intense way,” Ms. Wintour said. But, she added, “I’m very glad to have a record of what we do.”