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Documentaries Are Hot This Summer, but They Disguise a Specialty Box-Office Collapse

"Won't You Be My Neighbor?” and "RBG" are real success stories, but in the meantime the rest of the specialized market is quietly falling apart.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Arthouse filmmakers generally don’t use market research to generate project ideas, but if they did you might expect a pitch for an animated film about Walter Cronkite, directed by Sofia Coppola. Sounds absurd, but those are the elements that currently work: Documentaries about beloved heroes, along with Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs.”

“Isle of Dogs” made $32 million, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will likely achieve $20 million, and “RBG” stands at $12.3 million, the best performer in Magnolia’s history. However, these successes mask a collapse: Outside awards season, the bottom has fallen out for specialized releases.

Crowdpleaser documentaries often open in the first half of the year, when there can be a vacuum in the specialized market. Among Michael Moore’s films, “Fahrenheit 9/11” (which adjusted grossed $175 million) and “Bowling for Columbine” and “Sicko” (both over $30 million) were all May or June releases, as was “An Inconvenient Truth” (adjusted also over $30 million). “Super Size Me,” with its consumer message wrapped in an entertaining package, opened in June and reached $17 million.

The just-opened “Three Identical Strangers” shows signs of crossover appeal and likely multi-million dollar box office. But otherwise only “Pope Francis: Man of His Word” passed the $1 million mark, and that came with a 345-theater opening, a low per-theater average, and a very short run. “Whitney” opened even wider to unimpressive results.

The Death of Stalin

“The Death of Stalin”

Photo by Nicola Dove, courtesy of IFC Films

After “Isle of Dogs,” IFC’s “The Death of Stalin” is the top-grossing, non-documentary specialized release, with just over $8 million. And here’s where it gets scary: In the first half of 2017, “The Big Sick,” “The Beguiled,” and “The Lost City of Z” had each grossed over $8 million. “The Big Sick” ended up with almost $43 million, “The Beguiled” over $10 million.

In 2016, there were four by the end of June: “Eye in the Sky” (almost $20 million), “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” “Love and Friendship” (both over $10 million), and “The Lobster.”

In 2015 it was five, with three over $20 million — “Woman in Gold,” “Ex-Machina,” “Still Alice” (a January Oscar-related release), and “It Follows” at $15 million, with “I’ll See You in My Dreams” on its way to over $8 million.

With 2014, we had “The Grand Budapest Hotel” at nearly $70 million, “Chef” over $35 million, “Begin Again” on its way to almost $20 million, with several others ahead of “The Death of Stalin.” “Boyhood” was just opening. Similarly, 2013 had “Mud,” “A Place Beyond the Pines,” and “Quartet” all over $20 million, with two others better than $8 million.

At this point, we’ve got an ugly trend. Last year, five summer films made between $4 million – $8 million by the end of June: “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Beatriz at Dinner,” “Maudie,” “Paris Can Wait,” and “The Hero.” This year, no films share that achievement. The just-opened “Sorry to Bother You” will likely surpass “The Death of Stalin,” with “Three Identical Strangers” and possibly “Leave No Trace” making between $4 million-$8 million, but that still leaves us in a down cycle.

The Leisure Seeker

“The Leisure Seeker”

Another discomfiting note: Midyear 2012, Fox Searchlight unleashed “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which topped out around $50 million and proved that films with senior characters had massive specialized appeal. Similar efforts have become above-average art house performers since, but the moment seems to have passed. Part of this might be an oversaturation or competition from wide-release films like “The Book Club,” but the best this year so far has been “The Leisure Seeker,” topping out just over $3 million. “Finding Your Feet” (Roadside Attractions) fell under $1.5 million. Christopher Plummer road trip movie “Boundaries” will fall short of even $1 million.

Even more disconcerting is seeing three acclaimed dramas fall significantly short of their rapturous reviews. Per Metacritic, “The Rider” had the best reviews of any film this year, while “First Reformed” and “You Were Never Really Here” both received extensive editorial coverage. Only “First Reformed” will make more than $3 million.

Last year, early-year releases like “Their Finest,” “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” and “A United Kingdom,” all with adequate but not standout reviews, grossed $3 million-$4 million. This year, only “First Reformed” and “Disobedience” fell into the $3 million-$8 million range. Last year, nine films met that mark.

Four years ago this week saw the release of Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” which went on to gross $18.8 million. Of course, Coogler and Michael B. Jordan moved on to much bigger things, which is what hot actors and filmmakers do these days. It’s increasingly rare for specialized success to be viewed as an end unto itself. The opportunities are there with the promise of a (much) bigger paycheck and profile. It’s hard to not see that getting worse, though the lure of Oscar glory (for mostly later year releases) is a plus for independent film.

We live in divided and tricky times as a country, with audiences who frequently patronize art houses likely to be among those most passionately concerned about public events. This likely helped “RBG” thrive, and even the less political “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” could be getting support as a statement for civility. But both films provide supplementary information to what their audiences already feel: Audiences don’t expect to have their minds changed about anything. Sharing a perspective of Marvel fans everywhere, people know what they want and go in anticipation of getting it.

At their best, the dramas that fed art houses for decades weren’t offered — or accepted — as comfort food. They were renowned for challenging audiences to think rather than reinforcing biases. Of course, once upon a time studio movies did this too, but today it’s become a core reason that specialized film can call itself special.

We’re in a tribal society these days. This collapse might suggest the art house crowd wants certainty in its movies, not surprises. If that’s the case, don’t be surprised if it has a chilling impact on creativity, even if creative types respond by appealing to the already converted.

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