Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers don’t fit the typical movie star mold, and yet many are calling them the breakout box office successes of the summer. (Sorry, Tom.) In the past few months, documentaries focused on Ginsburg, the 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice at the center of RBG, and Rogers, the gentle-natured kids TV host and subject of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, have been battling for the spotlight with the superheroes, dinosaurs, and action stars that typically dominate popcorn season – and earning attention-grabbing box office returns as they do.
How did this happen?
For starters, both are good movies. Director Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has a Tomatometer score of 99%, is number 6 on our Best Movies of 2018 list, and this week crossed the $20 million mark in box office receipts for distributor Focus Features, making it the highest-grossing biographical documentary film ever. RBG, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, is Certified Fresh at 94% and has topped $13 million for Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media.
Those numbers don’t quite match the grosses rung up by Incredibles 2 or Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – and neither do their production and marketing budgets – but they are driving the best box-office year for documentaries since 2006, when An Inconvenient Truth and March of the Penguins led the way. And their success is causing some Hollywood dealmakers to look at the documentary genre in a new light.
Smart, explosion-free adult fare can provide counter-programming to the comic-book and franchise fare that typically dominates summer, and that’s certainly been the case this year – look at the surprise success of a mainstream movies like Book Club, or The Death of Stalin and Sorry to Bother You on the more indie front. But these movies can also offer counter-programming for our lives, according to Michael Renov, the Haskell Wexler Chair in Documentary at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and a longtime documentary scholar.
“Their success tells us something about the world we live in today,” Renov told Rotten Tomatoes. “Mean-spirited and uncivil behavior is so prevalent in our society that I think audiences find films that come at issues with a different perspective to be refreshing. [Rogers] was always looking for the good in everyone that he met. Both he and Ginsburg showed a compulsive commitment to do the right thing and to their work and vision, and I think that is resonating with audiences.”
The films have helped lessen the current divide in politics, culture, and even within families, suggests Elise Pearlstein, senior vice president for film and TV documentaries at Participant. “What’s notable about this summer is not that people are watching and enjoying documentaries, but that they’re doing so in the theater as a communal experience,” she told us. “People have been watching RBG across generations with family, friends, and colleagues – they want to have a shared experience and continue to talk about it afterwards.”
And then there’s the reality TV factor, suggests Renov.
“I’ve taught documentary filmmaking for 37 years and it has never been easier,” he said. “People now are accustomed to tuning in to the detail of real individuals’ lives and they have an appetite for that. When it is done in such a thought-provoking manner, with eloquence and artfulness, it really feeds that interest in the lives of others.”
It’s not just those two films that are fueling moviegoers’ sudden fascination with documentaries. Three Identical Strangers, the Tim Wardle-helmed tale of New Jersey triplets reunited as adults after being separated at birth, has rolled up $7 million in its first month of limited release for Neon.
“What Strangers has in common with the first two films is terrific word-of-mouth,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, “and for a documentary to be a hit, that’s essentially part of the protocol. Without a Rotten Tomatoes score in the 90s [Strangers is at 96%], it’s very tough for a documentary to break out.”
Another factor that has made the genre more appealing to broader audiences is Netflix. “You get something like The People vs. O.J. Simpson [the FX series available on Netflix] that was so well done and seen by so many people, and it has to have an effect. And once you watch one, you get ‘You Might Also Like …’ popping up on your mainframe from that point on.” Among the More Like This suggestions for The People are documentary series Making a Murderer and documentary film Amanda Knox.
Roadside Attractions’ Whitney, a behind-the-scenes look at the late pop diva, recorded solid per-screen averages in its limited rollout, as has McQueen, the tale of iconoclastic Brit fashion provocateur Alexander McQueen, which is distributed by Bleecker Street and is Certified Fresh at 98%.
There are several other biographical documentary films on the way that should further cement 2018 as a banner year for the genre: Expect fresh takes on one-time tennis bad boy John McEnroe (In the Realm of Perfection, August 22), former SNL star Gilda Radner (Love, Gilda, September 21), and pardoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning (XY Chelsea). This year, HBO has also released The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, Elvis Presley: The Searcher, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, and Andre the Giant.
Political documentaries are a different animal, usually playing to an ardent base and not much beyond. Conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza hails President Trump as the new Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming documentary film version of his book Death of a Nation. Quality Flix Entertainment plans to open it in roughly 1,000 theaters on Friday, eschewing the platform release strategy employed by distributors for most documentaries – gradually increasing the number of theaters in hopes of maximizing positive word of mouth.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Michael Moore plans to roll out Fahrenheit 11/9, his take on the election of President Trump, later this year; the filmmaker’s Fahrenheit 9/11 still holds the mark for the highest box office gross of any documentary with $119 million domestically and $222 million worldwide.
This likely won’t be the last summer when documentaries make a splash. Industry insiders knew there was something special about RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and Three Identical Strangers back at the Sundance Film Festival in January, when theirs were some of the most sought-after distribution rights of the fest. Given the subsequent success of those movies, you can expect studio acquisition executives to join their indie brethren in pursuit of the hottest documentaries there and on the festival circuit next year.