For good reason, many in the movie business considered the theatrical documentary about as current and vibrant as the newsreel or intermission snack bar cartoons. According to Box Office Mojo, during 2016 and 2017 only one feature landed in the list of top 25 grossing documentaries of all time and that was Disney’s nature film, Born in China.
It was generally assumed within the industry that the theatrical documentary experience was, if not deceased, then receiving last rites, having been taken over by streaming services. But a funny thing happened on the way to Netflix . The movie business is on a record pace this summer and up significantly from 2017 and it’s not simply due to sequels and remakes. Moviegoers have decided that the cinematic superheroes of summer 2018 are not only named Tony Stark and Deadpool but also Fred Rogers, Whitney Houston and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
According to comScore, RBG, the fascinating look at Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has now grossed nearly $12 million and currently sits at #25 on the aforementioned chart of top grossing documentaries of all-time. Director Kevin MacDonald’s Whitney opened this past weekend to a hefty $1.2 million in only 450 theaters and Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers debuted to over $700,000 in only 51 theaters.
Currently atop the documentary box office chart is, of all people, 1970s children’s TV show host Mr. Rogers, as Won’t You Be My Neighbor has now grossed over $12 million and shows no sign of slowing down in its 5th week.
While moviegoers are reveling in this proliferation of successful documentaries, movie theater chains are also reaping the rewards. Yes, the superhero tentpole titles that were expected to carry the summer are doing so at record levels, but these successful documentaries are also adding to cinema owners’ bottom lines, and at significantly lower film rental terms.
The run of quality documentaries won’t come to an end anytime soon either as features on both fashion designer Alexander McQueen and tennis bad boy John McEnroe arrive before the end of summer. In addition, late summer/early fall features two of the documentary genre’s biggest names with Dinesh D’Souza’s Death of a Nation on August 3rd and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 on September 21. Those two directors have combined for a staggering six of the top grossing 25 documentaries of all time.
The industry has been struggling to understand why moviegoers, who recently have been shunning documentaries as if they were a return to 9th grade History 101 class, have all of a sudden become fans of the genre. Here are some theories.
One of the key differences in the success of this summer versus 2017 from an overall box office standpoint is the performance of superhero sequels. Yes, the quality of the films has been better in 2018 but with the current state of the political and social climate in the U.S. moviegoers are craving someone to save them, whether that hero wears an Iron Man costume or a black justice robe.
Tom Ortenberg, former CEO at Open Road, is preparing to launch Briarcliff Entertainment and, as he preps to officially launch the company, is partnering with Michael Moore to release Fahrenheit 11/9. Ortenberg believes the communal experience is also a factor in the genre’s success. “We are living in troubling times and a film like Fahrenheit 11/9, as we saw with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and how it changed the dialogue around the Iraq war, has the unique power to unite strangers and provoke action, while making us laugh and nod in agreement with fellow audience members.“
In an odd way, the wide breadth of quality documentaries on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon may be raising awareness of the genre as well. Also, viewers accustomed to watching documentaries in four, six or even ten episode presentations on streaming platforms may find the allure of a compelling true story told in two hours or less irresistible.
There is obviously a nostalgia factor in play as well and perhaps moviegoers want to see the heroes of their childhood larger than life on the big screen. The theatrical experience of seeing the Whitney documentary, for example, on the big screen seems the perfect platform to match Miss Houston’s larger-than-life voice.
In addition, we live in times where truth is often stranger than fiction and therefore Americans are consuming more media in order to stay up with current events. According to Deadline, Fox News and MSNBC regularly finish atop the cable ratings chart. Americans are more aware of what’s happening in society and in politics and are discovering that real life is often more interesting than anything a Hollywood scriptwriter can conjure up.
Or finally, are we as American moviegoers simply looking for a return to a simpler, less divisive age? We might just be seeking a return to a moment in time when we were assured by Mr. Rogers that we were loved and valued and everything was going to be okay.
During the TV run of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Americans suffered through the Vietnam War, Watergate, the energy crisis, the Beirut Embassy bombing, the Challenger explosion, the first Gulf War, the LA riots and a near impeachment of a U.S. President. Through it all, Fred Rogers was always there to assure our children, and yes ourselves, that basic values such as honesty and kindness would eventually win in the end.
So perhaps moviegoers are indeed looking for a hero to save us or at least return us to a simpler time. And it doesn’t really matter whether that superhero arrives in a black spandex costume or a red cardigan sweater and sneakers.
All grosses and market share courtesy of Box Office Mojo and comScore
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