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

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire November 13, 2009 at 5:18AM

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."
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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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