There may be more documentary films and more documentary outlets than ever before, but there are fewer documentaries breaking out in movie theaters.
Gone are the days when a single year would bring forth several nonfiction films with multi-million-dollars in ticket sales (see five years ago, for example, when such record-setters as “Babies,” “Waiting For Superman,” “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” “Catfish,” and “Inside Job” all grossed over $4 million.)
But this year, Asif Kapadia’s “Amy,” a portrait of late singer Amy Winehouse, is performing at the box office like it’s 2009. After four weeks in release, the movie has earned over $5.5 million and is still going strong in hundreds of theaters. Buoyed by excellent reviews (an 85 score on Metacritic and A- on Criticwire) along with a pop culture icon as its central subject, distributor A24 has been able to turn the film — its first documentary release — into a kind of unique cultural event.
“First and foremost, it’s a really well made movie,” said A24’s Heath Shapiro. “And I think that in today’s day and age, people tend to find good movies, but there are so many different platforms now that it can be more of a challenge to cut through theatrically.”
Indeed, for many consumers nowadays, they’re not finding good documentaries in theaters; they’re finding them on various VOD platforms (such as Netflix, iTunes, etc), which is what makes the theatrical success of “Amy” so stunning.
“I think the cumulative effect of the reviews really helped,” explained Shapiro, who couldn’t point to any one specific press break or review that helped the film crossover. “But then once people started seeing the movie in theaters,” he continued, “something happened on the social media side.”
Katy Perry, for example, tweeted to her 73.3 million followers, “Saw the AMY doc last night… Finally saw her as a human….” Likewise, Mary J. Blige told her 5.3 followers “Amy Winehouse’s artistry inspired so many. I encourage you to see her documentary @AmyTheMovie this wknd.” Other celebrities and “influencers” such as Russell Brand, Ellen Page, Cara Delevingne, Questlove and Sam Smith also touted the movie. Even the decidedly less-hip John Lithgow tweeted to his 141,000 fans, “Just saw a great film, though it broke my heart 1000 ways. Go to #Amy.”
Unlike many theatrical documentaries, “‘Amy’ has benefited from a box-office boost from younger audiences. According to Shapiro, exit polling shows that the film is consistently drawing a significant amount of 18-34 year-olds. Now, with the positive reviews and buzz, the traditional older art-house audiences is coming around to the film, and cities like San Diego and Phoenix are generating solid sales alongside bigger markets such as L.A., San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Chicago.
As “Amy” continues its stellar box-office run, likely to break into the top 25 docs of all time, will its rising tide lift other documentaries?
Two to watch this weekend are Stevan Riley’s “Listen to Me Marlon,” which is the first theatrical release of Showtime Documentary Films, and Magnolia Pictures’ “Best of Enemies.” Both superbly reviewed films about famous figures, respectively, Marlon Brando, and William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, the films have all the makings of strong theatrical docs.
“Listen to Me Marlon” also had the good fortune of running its trailers in front of “Amy” across the country. But the target audience for both new films skews much older than the “Amy” fan base, which could affect their cultural impact. Also coming out in this crowded weekend for nonfiction, TWC-RADiUS is hoping to capitalize on Lego fever with the release of “A LEGO Brickumentary.”
But this year so far, there have been only four other documentaries that have reached seven figures at the box office: Magnolia Pictures’ releases of “Iris” and “The Wolfpack” both grossed around $1.2 million theatrically, while Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Salt of the Earth” brought in $1.3 million and The Orchard’s “Dior and I” just passed the $1 million mark.
Despite their distributors’ best efforts to make the subjects of these films accessible to the mainstream (for instance, the “Wolfpack” boys made several TV appearances), none of them have the innate pop celebrity profile of “Amy.” Hence, “The Wolfpack” and “Dior and I” may have run out of steam in theaters, but now they are both top titles on iTunes and cable VOD, where the traditional documentary audience has increasingly turned to consume its content.
Magnolia Pictures’ Eamonn Bowles noted that “The Wolfpack” is “doing robust business” on VOD, reaching well into the mid-six figures after just two and a half weeks in release “and holding up really, really well so far,” he said. Bowles also touted the release of “Ballet 422,” which did $333,000 theatrically, but was the #1 documentary on iTunes for a number of weeks.
But it’s not just audiences who are shifting their viewing habits; many of the big backers of high-profile docs also appear to be less invested in the theatrical setting. One of the year’s most prominent docs, Netflix’s “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — which, like “Amy,” also had a troubled celebrity performer at its center — bypassed a theatrical release and went straight to Netflix.
Likewise, CNN Films’ “Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me” had a respectable theatrical release, earning $365,000, but it was primarily done in order to boost the film’s profile. “It had a huge impact,” said distributor Richard Abramowitz, who worked on the theatrical distribution. “It was one of CNN’s highest rated movies and it’s done extremely well on transactional VOD.”
Then again, the success of “Amy” may reinvigorate distributors’ faith in the theatrical release. A24’s Shapiro acknowledged that times have obviously changed since the theatrical documentary heyday of “Super Size Me,” “March of the Penguins” and “The Aristocrats.” The reason? “Different platforms and consuming habits,” he said. “But I think there’s still an appetite for these movies — it’s just a matter of finding ones that you can event-ize.”
The coming months should be a strong indication of whether Shapiro is correct. In addition to “Listen to Me Marlon” and “Best of Enemies,” two of the documentary industry’s heavy-hitters will be unveiling their latest films: Alex Gibney’s “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” opens in early September, and Michael Moore’s long-awaited new film — which was completed in secrecy — “Where to Invade Next?” premieres in Toronto. And there’s nothing in the documentary world that spells “event” like Michael Moore.