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Reality Checks: Documentaries Are Struggling at the Box Office, But VOD May Yet Save the Day

Reality Checks: Documentaries Are Struggling at the Box Office, But VOD May Yet Save the Day

Last 4th of July weekend, Americans commemorated Independence Day, while documentary watchers prepared to celebrate a boom in nonfiction sales at the U.S. box office during this crucial mid-year point. But hold the fireworks, folks.

While two of the most potentially commercial docs of the year, Steve James’ beloved Roger Ebert portrait “Life Itself” and Dinesh D’Souza’s conservative bait “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” both performed well over the weekend, they didn’t do enough business to turn around a significant downward trend in theatrical ticket sales for documentaries.

If the theatrical marketplace remains the number one driver for generating publicity and water-cooler conversation around a particular documentary subject (not to mention ancillary sales), this overarching drop may be a significant cause for concern among the nonfiction community.

First, some numbers: Opening on 23 screens, “Life Itself” earned a total of $131,411 for a healthy $5,714 per-theater average. “America” widened its reach to $1,105 theaters, and brought in $2,743,753 for a modest $2,483 per-theater average. Compare those numbers to equivalent movies and the forecast becomes clearer.

D’Souza’s 2012 juggernaut “2016: Obama’s America” opened on a similar amount of screens (1,091) as “America,” but its per-theater average was more than twice as much ($5,966). And in another sign of the new movie’s dwindling momentum, weekend sales fell 6.1% from Friday to Saturday, and then dropped another 16.9% from Saturday to Sunday. Unless the Tea Party faithful suddenly come out in droves, D’Souza’s latest will be lucky if it breaks the six-million-dollar mark.

Finding an equivalent to “Life Itself” is more difficult. Documentaries such as “The September Issue” and “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” both also critically acclaimed docs about popular figures, opened to impressive per-theater averages of $36,772 and $23,479, respectively, but started their runs on around six screens. The overall trajectory of “Life Itself” is also harder to predict, given the fact that it’s the leading contender for the Academy Award, and could see its sales increase considerably in the coming months.

But right now, neither film’s sales are astounding. D’Souza’s “America” may yet turn out to be the biggest box-office success of the year — a triumph that conservative pundits will endlessly crow on about — but the film’s potential $6-7 million total gross pales in comparison to other top docs, such as “Obama’s America” ($33.4 million), 2009’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” ($14.4 million) and 2008’s “Religulous” ($13 million).

If “Life Itself” garners more than $2 million as it generates heat through the summer and award season, it will be only the second film of the year to hit that impressive benchmark. No one’s complaining about the year’s other successful docs — “Tim’s Vermeer” ($1.7 million), “Finding Vivian Maier” ($1.5 million), “Fed Up” ($1.5 million) and “Particle Fever” ($870,000 — but the total numbers altogether are a fraction of previous year’s tallies.

Disregarding the success of concert films (Justin Bieber, Katy Perry) and Disneynature movies (“Bears,” “Chimpanzee” ), multiple documentaries with $2-$3 million grosses had been the norm in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012 (see chart below). But last year, overall ticket sales for docs began to slip. Aside from 2010, a statistical anomaly, every year since 2008 has experienced at least five docs with box-office sales of over $2 million.

Something is changing in the marketplace. But it’s not a growing distaste for docs. On the contrary, the most obvious culprit is an increase in viewership on VOD platforms for documentaries.

While cable numbers for “Life Itself” won’t be available until Friday, according to Magnolia Pictures’ Eamonn Bowles, who is overseeing the film’s release, the movie performed well on iTunes, staying in the top 20 all weekend and the top three for indie titles. “Blackfish,” the company’s successful 2012 release (which earned just over $2 million in theatrical release) may have performed just as well on VOD. While Magnolia could not be reached to provide numbers, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Sea World expose was among the top titles on iTunes’ Independents list for months.

Another Magnolia released doc from this year, Joe Berlinger’s “Whitey: USA vs. James J. Bulger” earned just $36,000 in theaters, but remains atop iTunes top Independent releases. Likewise, “Particle Fever,” which is the 5th highest-grossing theatrical doc of the year so far, is also riding hide on iTunes’ list of top downloads after its exclusive launch on the service last week.

Unlike foreign-language films, documentaries have proven to be well suited to internet distribution services, where social networking has helped audiences gather around films that cater to their particular interests. For example, scientists, science fans and the physics community have congregated around “Particle Fever,” tweeting about the film, and championing it on Facebook (currently with 692 “People Talking About” and 8,500 “Likes,” which is a 3.1% uptick from last week). 

And a film like the recently released “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Schwarz,” being released by FilmBuff and Participant Media, seems far more appropriate for digital distribution than theatrical (where it’s only earned $41,000 at the box-office). VOD numbers were not available at this time, but the doc is also on iTunes’ list of top Independent titles. And in a testament to the film’s popularity online, the movie has been seeded hundreds of times on multiple torrent sites, like The Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrents.

Is July too early to decry the state of the theatrical box-office for documentaries? Probably not: Despite the quality of docs scheduled to be released during the rest of 2014 (“Expedition to the End of the World,” “Last Days in Vietnam,” “The Overnighters,” etc.), Music Box Films’ “The Green Prince,” about a Palestinian double-agent who worked for the Israeli security agency, may be the only doc yet to be distributed that has the theatrical quality and built-in art-house audience to garner significant box-office sales (see other successful recent Israel-themed docs such as “The Gatekeepers” and “Five Broken Cameras” ).

But given the changing state of independent film viewing in the United States, perhaps dwindling box-office sales aren’t necessarily a sign of disaster: It’s just one more indication that theatrical film-viewing is waning, particularly for indies. 


“20 Feet From Stardom” : $4,946,445
“The Gatekeepers:  $2,415,727
“Blackfish” : $2,073,582
“Girl Rising” : $1,620,901
“Stories We Tell” : – $1,600,145

Total: $12,656,800

“Obama’s America” : $33,349,941
“Searching for Sugar Man” : $3,694,808
“Bully” : $3,495,043
“Samsara” : $2,672,413
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” : $2,552,478

Total: $45,764,683

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” : $5,304,920
“Buck” : $4,036,175
“Senna” : $1,612,430
“Bill Cunningham New York” : $1,510,026
“Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” : $1,200,046

Total: $13,663,597

“Babies” : $7,320,323
“Waiting For ‘Superman’” : $6,415,448
“Exit Through The Gift Shop” : $3,291,250
“Catfish” : $3,237,343
“Inside Job” : $3,311,773

Total: $23,576,137

“Capitalism: A Love Story” : $14,363,397
“Food, Inc.” : $4,417,674
“Good Hair” : $4,146,170
“The September Issue” : $3,817,183
“Waltz with Bashir” : $2,063,408

Total: $28,807,832

“Religulous” : $13,011,160
“Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” : $7,720,487
“Shine a Light” : $5,505,267
“Young @ Heart” : $3,992,189
“Man on Wire” : $2,942,990

Total: $33,172,093

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