Last night the heroes of The Cove — director Louie Psihoyos and Ric O’Barry, the doc’s sad-eyed, dolphin-loving, consience-wracked star — sat for a q & a at Santa Barbara’s Lobero theatre following a showing of the film. The recent news that The Cove has finally been acquired for theatrical distribution in Japan– a major breakthrough in the campaign to put an end to dolphin killing in Taiji — lent an air of muted satisfaction.

(l. to r.) The Cove director Louie Psihoyos, Ric O’Barry, Mike DeGruy during last night’s Lobero theatre tribute.

The finale came with Psihoyos and O’Barry being handed the SBIFF’s David Attenborough Award for Excellence in Nature Filmmaking. Big grins, standing ovation, flashbulbs, etc.

Host Mike DeGruy — programmer of the festival’s Reel Nature sidebar and a cinematographer who specializes in nature filmmaking — seemed a wee bit uncomfortable with discussing the political strategies of the Cove team. He was okay with a little bit of this, but not too much. A constant grinner, DeGruy was always looking for a chuckle, urging O’Barry or Psihoyos to provide an amusing quip or personal story of some sort — the way an Entertainment Tonight anchor might handle such an interview.

No one, of course, mentioned the elephant that has been squatting in the room and knocking over furniture since The Cove opened last summer — i.e., the strong suspicion that most women have been boycotting it due to the doc’s brief third-act depiction of scores of dolphins being harpooned to death.

The financial result is that The Cove — one of the most suspenseful, best edited, and most emotionally gripping political docs of all time — never cracked a million dollars in theatrical grosses. As of early January it had made a lousy $862,313. It was released on DVD on 12.8.09. The DVD revenues will obviously spike upwards if The Cove wins the Best Feature Documentary Oscar.

After the show I asked O’Barry and Psihoyos if the response to the screenings of The Cove at last October’s Tokyo Int’l Film Festival had spurred Medallion Media to open it commercially in Japan. (It will debut there in April.) They both went “I’m not sure, I’m not privvy, ask Film Four,” etc. I don’t know why they’re shilly-shallying. The Tokyo festival showings were obviously the spark of it all.

And I don’t get why O’Barry is so fixated on Ben Stiller as the savior who finagled the Tokyo Film Festival honchos into showing The Cove. Stiller was a kind of savior — a passionate player in the effort, for sure — but the main guy was director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, last fall’s TIFF jury chairman. It began when I contacted Inarritu about The Cove, urged him to see it and consider the symbolism of an allegedly green festival not showing it, etc. Stiller and Cove producer Fisher Stevens suggested the same. Inarritu saw the film, thought things over and proceeded to gently cajole and pressure festival chiefs into giving The Cove a slot.

Stiller recounted this story during a Larry King Show visit last November [above], and O’Barry was sitting right beside him as he said “well, I did what I could but it really wasn’t me as much as Inarritu,” etc. And yet O’Barry has decided that “Ben Stiller saved the dolphins” sounds better than talking about some Mexican director with a hard-to-pronounce name, etc. Simple legends are more persuasive than detailed facts.