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by Peter Knegt
November 13, 2009 5:18 AM
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B.O. of the '00s: The Top Grossing Documentaries

The 2010s are fast approaching - 48 days and counting - and indieWIRE is continuing this weekly Friday chart devoted to glancing back at the past ten years. With a film opening each weekend as a starting point, we're charting various sub-categories of 2000s film, focusing on their North American box office performance. This week, with Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler's "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" marking one of the very last documentaries to be released this decade (Yoav Shamir's "Defamation" - out next weekend - is one of the few besides "Universe" left to be released), iW decided to look back at the last ten years in terms of the "dox office."

It's really been a stunning decade for documentaries. With early-to-mid 2000s entries like "Bowling For Columbine" and "Winged Migration" paving the way, documentaries all of a sudden became something they have rarely been considered with such consistency: potential moneymakers. In fact, of the top thirty grossing documentaries of all time, only four - Michael Moore's "Roger & Me," Steve James's "Hoop Dreams," Alek Keshishian and Mark Aldo Miceli's "Madonna: Truth or Dare," and Jennie Livingston's "Paris and Burning" - are from pre-y2K.

As far as this decade's list goes, we looked again at the top thirty, excluding those rare studio docs (Disney's "Earth," and, technically, Sony's "Michael Jackson's This Is It," for example) as well as concert films, IMAX films and reality TV movies ("Jackass," for example). Michael Moore's presence is predictably intense with four of the top six, and the only one that managed the astounding feat of grossing over $100 million (2004's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which will likely remain the top grossing doc of all time for many years to come). While other doc-phenomenon rarities like "March of the Penguins" and "An Inconvenient Truth" stand firmly among Moore's films, looking further down the list, there are an eclectic mix from "The Aristocrats" to "Touching The Void" to "The Fog of War" to "The September Issue."

Another interesting trend is that seventeen of the top thirty docs come from the 3-year period of 2003-2005, which seems like the peak of documentary's new-found ability to attract mainstream audiences. The years 2000 and 2001 are each represented with a whopping zero entries, while recent years have again seen a bit of an uptick, with 2009's four entries (three of which are still in theaters), an increase from 2008's three and 2007's zero. What the next decade holds for documentary and the box office remains to be seen, but in the meantime, take a look at what just transpired:

The poster for "Fahrenheit 9/11." Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

Top Grossing Documentaries of the 2000s

1. Fahrenheit 9/11 | 2004 | $119,194,771
2. March of the Penguins | 2005 | $77,437,223
3. Sicko | 2006 | $24,540,079
4. An Inconvenient Truth | 2006 | $24,146,161
5. Bowling For Columbine | 2002 | $21,576,018
6. Capitalism: A Love Story | 2009 | $14,093,834*
7. Religulous | 2008 | $13,011,160
8. Winged Migration | 2003 | $11,689,053
9. Super Size Me | 2004 | $11,536,423
10. Mad Hot Ballroom | 2005 | $8,117,961
11. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed | 2008 | $7,720,487
12. The Aristocrats | 2005 | $6,377,461
13. Spellbound | 2003 | $5,728,581
14. Shine a Light | 2008 | $5,505,267
15. Touching the Void | 2004 | $4,593,598
16. Food, Inc. | 2009 | $4,411,489
17. The Fog of War | 2003 | $4,198,566
18. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room | 2005 | $4,071,700
19. Young@Heart | 2008 | $3,992,189
20. Good Hair | 2009 | $3,826,821*
21. Step into Liquid | 2003 | $3,681,803
22. The September Issue | 2009 | $3,670,036*
23. Born into Brothels | 2004 | $3,515,061
24. The Corporation | 2004 | $3,493,516
25. Rise | 2005 | $3,336,391
26. Grizzly Man | 2005 | $3,178,403
27. Wordplay | 2006 | $3,121,270
28. Capturing The Friedmans | 2003 | $3,119,113
29. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill | 2005 | $3,058,527
30. Man on Wire | 2008 | $2,962,242

*-still tracking

"B.O. of the '00s" is a weekly feature from indieWIRE running until the end of the year. Check out the previous editions:

B.O. of the '00s: The Top Grossing Sundance Films

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8 Comments

  • johnsalmons | November 19, 2009 4:54 AMReply

    While I applaud you for ultimately making the right decision, I am rather shocked that you would even entertain the notion of not including it because it has a political agenda that you disagree with. Expelled is not any different than Michael Moore's films or any of the many films on that list that were pushing a political point of view (The Corporation as an example) To be clear, I saw Expelled and really didn't care for it all that much in terms of craft and I certainly disagreed with its agenda. but the answer is not revisionism, which excluding Expelled and a couple of my prior comments is clearly an example of.

  • Peter Knegt | November 19, 2009 4:09 AMReply

    I questioned whether "Expelled" was more of an advocacy film for creationism than it was a documentary, but decided in the end I was allowing my own belief systems to guide that decision and added it to the list. Though I'd imagine I'm not alone in questioning the film's distinction as a documentary vs. propaganda, I suppose some might say the same about Michael Moore, so I do apologize for its initial omission.

  • johnsalmons | November 19, 2009 3:41 AMReply

    Why was expelled omitted in the first place? Was it an editorial decision?

  • Peter Knegt | November 16, 2009 3:13 AMReply

    documentarydiva: I did not intend to do any injustice to pre-2000 documentary. I wasn't suggesting there have been no documentary successes pre-y2K (I even list 4). I realize very much that documentaries have made money throughout the years, but this was a very small article and the focus was not to examine extensively outside of the past decade. The fact remains that never have this MANY documentaries proved to consistently make money as they did in 2002-2006. And it was most definitely a change from the 1980s and 1990s.

  • documentarydiva | November 16, 2009 1:33 AMReply

    OK..weighing in on a topic dear to my heart. Thanks for doing this piece. Very helpful. To focus on only the last ten years is important. However, to state that top grossing documentaries are almost nil in pre y2K is to, as is the usual case, ignore the actual history of documentary. WOODSTOCK anyone? Certainly not only a concert film. I realize that box office records go back only so far, but if one looks just a tiny bit deeper, it becomes obvious that MANY documentaries grossed at least as much as those listed, if one adjusts for inflation. NANOOK OF THE NORTH was a roaring success for Pathe in the late 1920s. Nanook himself became a world-wide celebrity. Check out the reviews. And that is just the beginning. WWII's WHY WE FIGHT played to millions in the 1940s. KON TIKI, WATTSTAX, THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLES, etc., etc, etc. It is unfortunate to forget a great history and to perpetuate the disingenuous idea that theatrically successful documentaries are a new phenomenon. Always, Betsy McLane

  • Maryland Clay | November 15, 2009 3:30 AMReply

    March of the Penguins had Morgan Freeman go inside a penguin's head and tell us what he was thinking. I thought that was a milestone.

  • albuxt | November 13, 2009 6:19 AMReply

    I think there was probably a distinction made between documentaries which have a very strong point of view, like Michael Moore's films, and farcical attempts at outright propaganda such as Expelled.

  • johnsalmons | November 13, 2009 6:09 AMReply

    Pretty bizarre that you left out Expelled which did $7,720,487 in box office last year and would rank as no. 11.

    What is the deal with that?