LOS ANGELES » Capt. Richard Phillips was bobbing in a boat full of Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean four years ago when Hollywood recognized an Oscar moment.
Film producers who were glued to the news sensed the stuff of next-wave nonfiction — an action hero, in a real-life global drama.
Things turned out well, from a cinematic point of view. Navy SEALs flew to the rescue, three of the pirates were shot dead, and Phillips was freed unharmed.
The resulting movie, "Captain Phillips," directed by Paul Greengrass, will arrive in October with Tom Hanks in the title role. It is one of a dozen nonfiction narratives that are promising to shake up the coming awards season, and perhaps to reinvent a reality-based movie genre that only a few years ago seemed moribund.
While Hollywood still loves the summer escape movie, sophisticated real-life dramas are filling up the latter part of the year, attracting top-flight stars and directors and finding a niche with audiences continually wired into unfolding news events.
Almost everybody knows something about the stories behind the new films, giving them a recognition factor that serves as a built-in marketing motor.
"The story already exists; everybody around the table says, ‘Yeah!’" Hanks said, describing the current preference of studio executives as they sift through scripts and proposals.
Hollywood is quick to adopt a winning formula, and the critical and box office success of films like "A Social Network" and "Moneyball" has proved that reality-based narratives can make money and win awards — something beyond the ability of most blockbusters.
At the same time, executives and film historians say, media fragmentation has made studios more wary of jumping into purely fictional drama, because they can no longer rely on best-selling novels, original stage shows, or even the reputation of master filmmakers to supply a mass audience.
"It’s quite possible that we’re in a golden age for this type of film, and we’re just not aware of it yet," said Robert Birchard, editor of the American Film Institute catalog of feature films.
Since long before Gary Cooper played Lou Gehrig in "The Pride of the Yankees" (released in 1942), the nonfiction genre has tended to "come and go," Birchard noted.
It seemed to be fading in early 2010, when a 3-D fantasy, "Avatar," was all the rage, and — despite the real underpinnings of fictions like "An Education" and "The Hurt Locker" — only one nonfiction film, "The Blind Side," figured among 10 best picture nominees at the Academy Awards. But "The Social Network," which drew eight Oscar nominations in 2011, set the film world abuzz with its close examination of Facebook and its founders — even as an old-style historical drama, "The King’s Speech," took the top honors that year. Then, three inventive, reality-based dramas — "Argo," "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty"— unexpectedly turned the last Oscar contest into a rousing political brawl.
This year, nonfiction is back with a vengeance, beginning last week with the national release of "Fruitvale Station," by the Weinstein Co., about the 2009 shooting of a young man by an Oakland, Calif., transit officer.
Some of the more notable entries that follow will focus on events or people still prominent in the public consciousness. They include "The Fifth Estate," about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, from director Bill Condon; "Jobs," about Apple founder Steve Jobs, from Open Road; and "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," from the Weinstein Co.
Others examine subjects in the recent and distant past, including "Rush," about Formula One racers Niki Lauda and James Hunt, from Ron Howard; "Twelve Years a Slave," about the 19th-century abduction of Solomon Northup, by Steve McQueen; and "The Monuments Men," about those who saved great art from destruction by Hitler, with George Clooney, who directed, in a starring role.
Nonfiction is erupting not just because of its marketing power, but also because filmmakers are using reality with increased sophistication. That can involve an unusual amount of original investigation, as with "Zero Dark Thirty," or a detail-minded approach that might have been jarring before cellphone cameras turned life into one big documentary.
By Michael Cieply, New York Times