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Box Office 2.0: Assessing 2009's Dox Office From "Capitalism" to "The Cove"

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire November 17, 2009 at 10:23AM

While the box office monster that is "Precious" and the first weekend of studio backed limited release "Fantastic Mr. Fox" sat high atop this week's box office chart, and got primary focus in the last weekend estimates report, there were nevertheless interesting numbers happening just below them. A notable seven films walked away with per-theater-averages of $10,000+ (add an eighth if you include the restoration of "The Red Shoes"), including three documentaries: the second weekend of Frederick Wiseman's "La Danse," and the debuts of both Philippe Diaz's "The End of Poverty?" and Andrew Jacobs's "Four Seasons Lodge" (a fourth doc, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," also managed somewhat decent numbers, averaging $5,161 from 2 screens).
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While the box office monster that is "Precious" and the first weekend of studio backed limited release "Fantastic Mr. Fox" sat high atop this week's box office chart, and got primary focus in the last weekend estimates report, there were nevertheless interesting numbers happening just below them. A notable seven films walked away with per-theater-averages of $10,000+ (add an eighth if you include the restoration of "The Red Shoes"), including three documentaries: the second weekend of Frederick Wiseman's "La Danse," and the debuts of both Philippe Diaz's "The End of Poverty?" and Andrew Jacobs's "Four Seasons Lodge" (a fourth doc, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," also managed somewhat decent numbers, averaging $5,161 from 2 screens).

"Lodge" and "Poverty?" - each playing on a sole New York City screen - grossed $11,667 and $12,593, respectively. The former - which follows a community of Holocaust survivors - performed impressively at the IFC Center, while the latter - which looks at the root causes of poverty since colonial times - beat out all of the other films at the City Cinemas Village East, including Disney's "A Christmas Carol."

Even more impressive was "La Danse," which indieWIRE profiled in last week's "Box Office 2.0". The doc, which explores the Paris Opera Ballet, doubled its gross from last weekend after adding a second screen at New York's Film Forum. After setting a house capacity record at the Film Forum last week - selling out every single show during the entire week - "La Danse" added a second screen at the theater and took in $28,104 this weekend. The cume for the Zipporah Films release now stands at $67,000 since its November 4th opening in New York.

Instead of getting into further detail about these releases, though (which was how last week's column played out), we figured we'd mix things up by using this weekend's docs as an entry point into a broader discussion: Documentaries at the box office in 2009. As a recent chart on indieWIRE documenting the highest grossing docs of the decade pointed out, 2009 represented a notable uptick in the "dox office." And with less than a handful of docs left for release this year (this Friday's release of Tao Ruspoli's "Fix" and Yoav Shamir's "Defamation" are the only ones remaining on our calendar), we figured it might be a good time to take a deeper look.

Eight specialty documentaries have crossed the $1 million mark so far this year: Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story," Robert Kenner's "Food, Inc.," Jeff Stilson's "Good Hair," R.J. Cutler's "The September Issue," Matt Tyrnauer's "Valentino: The Last Emperor," Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern's "Every Little Step," Davis Guggenheim's "It Might Get Loud," and Aviva Kempner's "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg." At least one will join them by year's end (Kristopher Belman's "More Than a Game"), and there's also three studio doc efforts ("Earth," "Michael Jackson's This Is It" and, technically, "The Jonas Brothers 3-D Concert Experience") that have found a combined box office gross of well over $100 million. Compare that to last year (when five docs grossed the $1 million mark) or 2007 (when only three did), and we've got ourselves what looks like an upward trend.

A scene from Matt Tyrnauer's doc "Valentino: The Last Emperor." Image courtesy of Truly Indie.

Obviously one must be cautious in using a simple statistic like "how many docs crossed a certain financial benchmark" to proclaim anything. But there's a lot of interesting stories behind those noted films that reinforce optimism. "Valentino," for example, surprised many when it opted against traditional distribution and still managed potent box office via a do-it-yourself plan through Truly Indie Films. On March 18th of this year, the film - which follows the closing act of fashion icon Valentino's celebrated career - opened in New York's Film Forum to a $21,784 gross, making it one of the theater’s top-grossing premieres in over three decades. The film slowly but surely expanded after that, ending up with a $1,755,134 gross without ever going over 38 screens at a given time.

"We've been powered by word of mouth and community," director Tyrnauer told indieWIRE back in May, "and I've never seen that in a way as profound as at Film Forum. We would sell out matinees on a Tuesday. That [word of mouth and community] has been kept alive in New York City for more than 10 weeks. Especially downtown, which is a crossroads of sophistication, fashion, gay culture, and indie film culture... It's ground zero for us, so it's really welcome and appropriate to go back on a major screen."

A few months later, another fashion-oriented doc, "The September Issue" (which profiles Vogue editor Anna Wintour), opened to a stunning per theater average of $36,736. That marked the fifth highest PTA for a doc, and the highest in the history of both distributor Roadside Attractions, and producer A&E IndieFilms. While the film's eventual $3,730,158 is quite impressive, its additional over $4 million take from Australia and New Zealand, Japan, UK and France makes it a rare U.S. doc that managed to find considerable worldwide appeal.

And then there's the newest member of the $1 million dollar club, "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg." Released by International Film Circuit, the film - which looks at television pioneer Gertrude Berg - didn't hit that mark until its 17th weekend out.

"After four months of traveling around with the film all over America I am thrilled that Berg is no longer 'the most famous woman in America that you've never heard of' thanks to InFC's fine handling of the film", Aviva Kempner said at the time. "It also proves that docs that appeal to older audiences like "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" can be commercial successes. Never underestimate the interests of senior citizens, even though they pay less for a movie!!!"

The release used a mere 25 prints which moved across the country over the entire summer. The film received a vigorous grassroots outreach campaign and co-promotions with Jewish Film Festivals across the country to reach the target audience without breaking the bank.

Unfortunately, like any year, not every doc has a success story. Even "Capitalism: A Love Story," though certainly not unsuccessful in its $14 million and counting gross (it should end up with around $15 million), did mark Michael Moore's lowest doc gross since 1989's "Roger & Me," a 40% drop from 2006's "Sicko." And then there was a film most expected to easily join the $1 million club, but ended falling short: Louie Psihoyos's "The Cove."

A scene from Louise Psihoyos' "The Cove." Image courtesy of the Sundance Film Festlval.

Coming off a Sundance audience award and a nearly unheard of string of successes on the festival circuit, "The Cove" entered the marketplace late summer with everything going for it. But the film - about dolphin hunts in Japan - averaged a less-than-expected $13,875 its first weekend out and then putted along to a $843,072 final gross. That's a curiously similar number to 2008's "American Teen," which also came out of Sundance with very high expectations for its box office potential and then was released late summer to underwhelming returns.

Another Sundance winner - Ondi Timoner's Grand Jury Prize honoree "We Live In Public" - has arguably struggled. Like the aforementioned "Valentino," the film opted for do-it-yourself distribution, this time through Abramorama.

"I didn't care for any of the deals that we were offered at Sundance and thereafter," Timoner told indieWIRE back in August. Among the high-profile suitors she reportedly turned away was HBO, a dream distributor for most documentary filmmakers. But, Timoner has ambitious goals for her movie, which looks at Internet guru Josh Harris and his pre-Web 2.0 move to constantly document his life via the Internet.

So far, the film has grossed $40,043 over eight weekends. While many might consider that a low number for a doc that won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, one must consider this: It's never been screening in more than two screens at the same time. With the exception of one weekend, it's found weekend grosses in the $1,500 to $7,500 range. But then, as reasonable as that is, it's still only amounted to a $40,043 total. Though obviously it's unlikely Timoner was expecting even "Cove"-sized grosses from her plan, as films like "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" prove, they're possible for unconventionally released docs.

But whatever one deems successful or unsuccessful with regard to 2009's batch of documentaries, it remains that it was a very interesting year to examine. A trend with all three of the films discussed here as "successful" case studies was their ability to target demographics that are not "typical" documentary audiences. And while other big 2009 docs had more obvious strengths, from nature themes ("Earth," now the third highest grossing doc ever behind "Fahrenheit 9/11" and fellow nature doc "March of the Penguins") to hot button topics ("Capitalism: A Love Story" and "Food, Inc.," the year's top two), as a whole the year's docs included an eclectic mix of topics. Other notable dox office stories from the year 2009 include another Abramorama DIY-er, "Anvil! The Story of Anvil," which managed a fantastic (and seven dollars off from downright devilish) $666,659 despite a minimal screen count and somewhat low expectations. The fact that the film follows a Canadian metal band that never quite made it to the big time but, as a result of the film, opened for AC/DC, just speaks to the surprising power docs can have, even if they don't crack $1,000,000.

"Box Office 2.0" is a new weekly column by indieWIRE Associate Editor Peter Knegt. Check out his previous editions:

Box Office 2.0: Two Notable DIY Releases That Opened In "Precious"'s Shadow
Box Office 2.0: Snap Judgements & Great Expectations





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