Former talk show host Phil Donahue got gratifying news this week when "Body of War," a movie he produced and co-directed, was placed on the short list of 15 films that will now compete for the five nominee spots in the Academy Awards' full-length documentary category.
But what he and co-director Ellen Spiro haven't gotten yet -- although the film's short-listing may help -- is a distributor for the moving and unabashedly anti-war film about a paraplegic veteran, cast against the backdrop of the 2002 congressional debate over the Iraq war.
Other contenders for the documentary Oscar that address the war on terror include "No End in Sight," "Taxi to the Dark Side" and "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience."
Also on the list: "White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," "Nanking," "The Rape of Europa," the abortion film "Lake of Fire" and Michael Moore's 2007 top-grossing doc "Sicko."
Despite audience awards, critical raves and standing ovations at several film festivals, major studios and indie distributors have shied away from "Body of War," which dovetails the story of war veteran Tomas Young with Congress' debate over the resolution that authorized the use of U.S. military force in Iraq.
"We have some tantalizing interest, and we remain hopeful it will be in a theater near you early next year," says Donahue. "There's been interesting bites, but no firm offer. We're not saying we're better, but we feel we're different than anything out there."
Most likely, acquisition execs felt uncomfortable with box office prospects for the personal drama of Young, a charismatic grunt who got shot just five days after arriving in Iraq and later underwent a political metamorphosis that turned him into a forceful activist.
In its mixed-to-positive review, Hollywood trade paper Variety said the directors "succeed in personalizing some of the war's grim statistics, but the purview of their portrait feels too limited for the pic to play widely. It should work best as tube and fest fare - and as a counter-recruitment tool."
"There's talk of an Iraq war documentary fatigue," says Donahue. "Every time I hear that, I wish there was an Iraq war casualty fatigue."
He says audiences may be growing weary of "seeing things that go 'Boom!'" but adds that his film describes "the pain after the soldiers come home."
Being in television all his life, Donahue says he's "feeling his way along the wall of a dark hallway" in terms of finding theatrical distribution for his project.
But he felt inspired to make the film after meeting Young and watching the entire Iraq authorization vote debate on C-SPAN.
Through clever cutting, he shows how both Republican and Democratic members of Congress parroted the same talking points in the march toward war. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Donahue recalls.
"Phrases like 'unmanned aerial vehicles' and 'a smoking gun that can become a mushroom cloud' - it was the politics of fear shaped by an administration to sell a war."
Contrast Donahue's predicament with that of another difficult doc, "Darfur Now," which opened in theaters earlier this month. It will reach nearly 100 theaters before year's end and was "surprisingly easy" to sell, according to director Theodore Braun.
Seed money came from Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation, and "Crash" producer Cathy Schulman came on board shortly after she won the Oscar for best picture.
With the help of "Crash" star and Darfur activist Don Cheadle, the movie had no problem receiving backing from Participant Productions as well as Warner Independent Pictures.
The reason: Young people ages 16 to 25 are the most active when it comes to protesting the Darfur problem. "It can cost $75 or more for a couple with kids to go to the movies," says Braun. "For kids, it's just an $8 investment."
What's the draw? "Given the state of the world at the moment, we asked, 'Why would people want to spend a weekend at this film?'" says Braun. "The answer: hope. Previous films focusing on the conflict left me numb, emotionally shut down, hopeless. We felt the way to overcome that was to put audiences in the shoes of the people who feel they can help bring an end to this crisis."
While the movie describes the genocide, its primary thrust spotlights upbeat activists in the U.S., Europe and Africa.
Schulman said "the whole approach of the [Darfur] film, not just our marketing strategy, was to reach a wide, young audience."
There's a MySpace page devoted to the film, Warner hired consultants to organize grass-roots marketing, various religious congregations were shown early prints, and groups ranging from the NAACP to local Muslim organizations were recruited to help spread the word.
MTV's mtvU wing partnered to promote campus screenings, while 30-second PSAs with Jessica Biel, Brad Pitt, Magic Johnson and others indirectly tie into the film.
Without a distributor, "Body of War" doesn't have that kind of marketing money at its disposal yet.
But it's already made waves, and its Oscar possibilities could help build momentum for an acquisition.
So has strong encouragement from DreamWorks mogul David Geffen, activist actor Sean Penn and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, who contributed two songs, including a powerful anthem called "No More," to the movie free of charge.
Donahue said he and the film's backers will continue to push for a distributor. "Theatrical distribution has a certain gravitas that other mediums don't. We have momentum," he said.
"'Little Miss Sunshine' we ain't," Donahue added. "But we're different from any other Iraq film: We're commercial."
© 2007 The Politico