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Documentaries Are Losing the Theatrical Game, But Don’t Despair Yet

The bulk of this year's nonfiction releases had a rough time in theaters, but hope is not lost.

James Baldwin Raoul Peck I am Not Your Negro

“I Am Not Your Negro”

A year ago, it seemed like a great time for documentaries. “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck’s eviscerating look at race in America, was a cultural touchstone, reaching over 300 theaters across the country and earning over $7.4 million at the box office. At Sundance, buyers paid big money for nonfiction films like “Long Strange Trip” (Amazon, $6 million), “Icarus” (Netflix, $5 million), and “Step” (Fox Searchlight, $4 million), among others.

And then, one by one, big-ticket docs failed to live up to box-office expectations. “Step” earned just over $1.1 million; Sundance Grand Jury Prize doc winner “Dina” grossed only $90,503 after seven weeks in release; Oscar-nominated filmmaker Matthew Heineman’s highly acclaimed Syrian activist doc, “City of Ghosts,” made only $128,015; while other highly topical and critically lauded films, such as “Whose Streets?,” “The Force,” “Trophy,” and “Risk” failed to draw a significant audience.

Theatrical ticket sales don’t tell the whole story; many docs find audiences on streaming services. However, it does mean that the upcoming Sundance Film Festival may prove to be a tougher market for documentary filmmakers. “There’s just so much nonfiction available at home,” said veteran distributor Richard Abramowitz.

Abramowitz’s Abramorama has released dozens of documentaries theatrically, including this year’s Jane Goodall doc “Jane” and last year’s hit Beatles doc “Eight Days a Week” ($2.9 million). Still, the overall numbers for docs have declined. “It’s not easy out there,” he said.

Modest Returns

In addition to “I Am Not Your Negro,” 2017 saw two other theatrical documentary hits: “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” ($3.5 million) and the cat movie “Kedi” ($2.8 million). Other limited-release nonfiction openers were modest, with “Jane” (currently at $1.3 million) coming in next, followed by “Step.” The next highest are “May It Last: A Portrait of The Avett Brothers” ($725,000) and “Walk with Me,” a mindfulness documentary released via theatrical-on-demand service Gathr (around $655,000).

Many industry insiders see this decline as a direct consequence of their success on streaming platforms. In fact, nonfiction releasing could be seen as the canary in the indie-film coal mine, signaling a greater shift away from theaters. However, not everyone sees that as a negative.

“Icarus”

Courtesy of Netflix

“One of the reasons the doc marketplace is so robust is that they perform better on SVOD than they ever did on TV,” said Impact Partners’ Dan Cogan, a producer on “Icarus,” “Step,” and a number of docs premiering at Sundance 2018, including “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (a Focus Features release) and “Our New President.” “I don’t see any problem in the documentary marketplace. Yes, we haven’t had a film that made more than $5 million in theaters recently, but anecdotally, people appear to be watching more docs than ever.”

Of course, Netflix and other streaming platforms don’t provide data. For producers like Cogan, there’s some comfort in looking to the scores and user ratings at IMDB.com as a measure of breakout success. (“Icarus” has an 8.0 out of 9,125 ratings; by comparison, “Kedi” has scored 7.7. out of 5,700 ratings and “An Inconvenient Sequel” has received a 5.9 out of 4,130 votes.)

According to Oscar-nominated documentary producer Julie Goldman (“Life, Animated”), docs without extensive theatrical campaigns still can have a cultural impact.

“Box office helps, but you can still have public screenings, where people can come together and foster movements,” she said. Moving forward, she added, “It’s going to be important that we clarify to streaming companies to foster those outreach and engagements campaigns. And if there isn’t the interest in doing that [from them], it’s important that we’re allowed to do it ourselves.”

Streaming Companies Will Dominate Sundance 2018

Documentary producers and sales agents expect the recent theatrical performance of nonfiction films may alter the dealmaking landscape at Sundance.

“I think it has it an effect,” said Submarine’s Josh Braun, who is selling roughly a dozen Sundance-bound docs including potentially commercial titles such as the Joan Jett doc “Bad Reputation” and Nathanial Kahn’s fine-art industry portrait “The Price of Everything.”

“Whether it’s ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ making millions of dollars or a film that’s highly anticipated that doesn’t make a lot of money, both of those things are going to cast some kind of shadow.”

Braun noted that given its unique ability to add prestige and promotion, “Sundance is a bubble and remains a bubble,” he said. Still, he conceded that theatrical distributors may be less competitive when it comes to documentary bidding wars.

“I think you will see every theatrical company going to buy a documentary, but if a streaming platform is going to offer a massive seven-figure offer, [theatrical distributors] may not step up to that.”

“The Devil We Know”

Julie Goldman, who has two films at Sundance (“Inventing Tomorrow” and “The Cleaners”) said the chance for another documentary breakout on the order of “I Am Not Your Negro” would activate all-rights theatrical distributors in the space. “But I think the more aggressive offers will come from the streamers,” she added.

If opportunities for theatrical docs narrow, theatrical distributors may focus on a few of the most commercial titles. “Because of the fallout of the theatrical being soft this year,” Braun said, “I think the obvious bigger films are going to be as hotly pursued as ever, but the ones in the middle might have a tougher time.”

Sales veteran John Sloss, whose Cinetic Media represents Sundance docs “RBG,” “Dark Money” and “The Devil We Know,” acknowledges the theatrical slowdown, but also remained confident. “I think there’s still big doc fans among the distributors,” he said, noting companies such as Neon, Magnolia, and The Orchard specifically. “It’s not over for docs theatrically.”

One-Night Stands Provide Documentary Lifelines

Indeed, there was one highly lucrative area of theatrical documentary releasing in 2017: single-night event screenings.

Targeted to enthusiastic core audiences, this allows distributors to galvanize fanbases into movie theaters. In the same way that Oscilloscope Laboratories motivated cat lovers to see “Kedi,” the company also held a successful one-night event for the Avett Brothers doc across approximately 300 theaters. “It illustrates how to identify and reach a target audience, and with music docs, it’s very easy,” said Oscilloscope’s Dan Berger.

Richard Abramowitz, who released docs this year on The Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam, John Coltrane, and Clive Davis, concurred. With a mix of one-week runs and single-event screenings, Abramorama yielded mid-six-figure ticket sales for a number of titles.

“These films are tribal,” he said. “In a perverse kind of way, the smaller the audience, the easier it is to appeal to them, because it is so focused.”

Similarly, the most successful theatrical purveyor of documentary content over the last year was Fathom Events, the exhibition-event venture owned by multiplex chains AMC, Cinemark, and Regal.

Fathom CEO Ray Nutt said revenue for their one-night-only nonfiction screenings increased a staggering 185% over last year, with approximately $16 million in overall ticket sales.

Notably, the company’s top nonfiction performers targeted another “tribal” niche: faith-based and evangelical audiences. Top grossers included creationist propaganda “Is Genesis History?” ($2,570,392), the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “IN OUR HANDS: The Battle for Jerusalem ($2,422,692), “Samaritan’s Purse presents Facing Darkness” ($1,710,483), about a Christian relief organization, and “Steve McQueen: American Icon” ($1,639,136), a proselytizing profile of the actor’s born-again transformation.

“I think what’s happening is that Fathom fills a void for these documentary filmmakers, who don’t want a conventional theatrical release or can’t get one,” said Nutt, who noted that faith-based events had “taken off.”

Confident that documentaries would continue to flourish at event screenings, Nutt added, “People still like a communal experience.”

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