‘It’s like a philosophy phenomenon, a documentary blockbuster,’ says Ron Mann describing Examined Life. Mann is the executive producer of the doc which follows philosophers while they espouse their knowledge. In the film, director Astra Taylor accompanies the likes of Peter Singer as he shares his thoughts on the ethics of consumption while walking down Fifth Avenue, Cornel West as he compares philosophy to jazz and blues from the backseat of a car in Manhattan, Slavoj Ziek as he critiques ecology in a garbage dump and five other philosophers as they wander the streets (or in one case, rows through a pond) talking about life.
While the idea of a film revolving completely around talking heads could easily induce yawns, Examined Life doesn’t. And that’s part of the reason it has been doing so well at the box office.
During its one week run at the IFC Theatre in New York City (starting February 25 and ending March 5) it recorded the highest per screen box office in the US for that weekend, making $12,085 on one screen over the weekend. The total take for the nine days it screened at IFC was $31,000. It has also been selling out in San Francisco where it opened on March 6.
‘Examined Life is really an Alka-Seltzer for the mind,’ explains Mann. ‘I minored in philosophy and I always thought about making a film about philosophers. It wasn’t until I saw Ziek (a doc by Taylor) and met Astra Taylor that I thought of producing the film and having her direct it.’ The doc started as a pitch at Hot Docs Toronto Documentary Forum in 2007. Mann says it was supported (and executive produced) by Rudy Buttignol as his last project at TVO, and then it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.
Clemence Tailander, head of theatrical sales at Zeitgeist Films, the distributor for Examined Life, says that audiences are coming to the film through word of mouth, which is part of Zeitgeist’s general grassroots strategy for distribution. ‘I attended some of the screenings and the audiences were electrified after the screening and wanted to talk about the philosophy of matter and ethics,’ says Tailander. ‘I think [audiences] really talk about this film after watching it and talk to their friends.’
‘What’s encouraging is people want to see films that are intellectually stimulating, and that actually are meaningful in their lives, because I don’t think they’re getting that from Fired Up,’ says Mann.
Mann’s Know Your Mushrooms opened in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, on the weekend and also did well. After this experience he feels he may have finally learned what audiences are looking for. ‘Mushrooms and philosophy. I’ve figured it out after 30 years of making movies.’