January’s Sundance Film Festival is the most effective launchpad for any documentary Oscar hopeful. With a field overloaded by competitive non-fiction, it’s essential to get a head start, a distributor, an early release date and build a profile before narrative features grab the media attention in an overcrowded fall.
Some high-profile non-fiction features, like Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s box-office star and eventual Oscar-winner “Free Solo,” break out of fall festivals like Telluride, Toronto, and New York. However, titles like those are the outliers.
Sundance 2018 yielded four out of the five 2019 Oscar nominees: $14 million-grossing Ruth Bader Ginsburg doc “RBG,” Sundance breakthrough filmmaker prize-winner Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” which follows three young skateboarders in the Rust Belt, photographer RaMell Ross’ languorous poetic portrait of a time and place, “Hale County: This Morning, This Evening,” and Talal Derki’s Sundance World Documentary Grand Jury Prize-winner “Of Fathers and Sons.”
Inspired by the 2018 box-office bonanza, buyers are chasing documentaries with a single-minded fervor: Currently, there’s 24 documentary contenders and counting in the 2020 Oscar field.
Ace non-fiction distributor Magnolia is releasing six Sundance debuts, including Penny Lane’s “Hail Satan?,” an hilarious look at an anti-religion group that isn’t what you expect; “The Brink,” Alison Klayman’s examination of the Steve Bannon phenomenon; Mads Brügger’s mystery-solving “Cold Case: Hammarskjold” (August 16), which won the Sundance World Documentary directing prize; Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ moving deep-dive into a world0changing author, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” (June 21); and Avi Belkin’s journalist profile “Mike Wallace Is Here” (July 26). And from Magnolia/Hulu there’s Ryan White’s look at a celebrity sex doctor, “Ask Dr. Ruth.”
Also from Hulu is Ben Berman’s “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary” (August 16), a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale about a dying magician.
Netflix will put its marketing muscle behind a strong documentary slate that includes four Sundance debuts. “American Factory” is an eye-popping look at the differences between American and Chinese factory workers when they come together at a Chinese car-glass factory in Ohio; Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert won the U.S. Documentary Competition directing prize.
Already streaming is “Knock Down the House,” focused on freshman New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of four politicians portrayed in Rachel Lears’ high-profile documentary, which took home the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. Karim Amer and “The Square” filmmaker Jehane Noujaim partnered on “The Great Hack” (July 24), an examination of Cambridge Analytica.
And respected Brazilian documentarian Petra Costa’s look at the frightening state of the Brazilian government, “The Edge of Democracy” (June 19), is a timely and chilling political cautionary tale about the rise of the far right.
Whether Martin Scorsese’s well-reviewed fiction/documentary hybrid “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” will pass muster with the exacting documentary branch is anyone’s guess.
Sony Pictures Classics picked up “Maiden” (June 28) at Toronto 2018. Alex Holmes’ rip-roaring crowdpleaser is about Tracy Edwards, a 24-year-old sailor who assembled in 1989 an all-female crew to compete for Britain in a round-the-world yacht race — shocking herself and the world.
SPC scooped up “David Crosby: Remember My Name” (July 19) at Sundance, A.J. Eaton’s portrait of the classic Crosby, Stills and Nash rocker and recovering addict, with rock journalist/filmmaker Cameron Crowe doing deep-dive interviews. Also debuting at Sundance was Matt Tyrnauer’s “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” (September 20), another disturbing look at a powerful political figure with impact on the world we live in today.
Neon is pushing two box-office hits. Top-ranked non-fiction title “Apollo 11” ($8.8 million), Todd Douglas Miller’s hi-res 65 mm narrative of the 1969 moon walk and a triumph of NASA archive restoration, won the Sundance U.S. Documentary editing prize and will hit theaters again for 50th anniversary events in July.
And “The Biggest Little Farm” ($3.7 million and counting), John Chester’s engaging story of a big-city couple tackling an organic farm, debuted at Telluride 2018. Also in the mix is Sundance entry “Honeyland,” an environmental film about a beekeeper in Macedonia, which took home the World Grand Jury Prize.
Debuting at SXSW was Syrian filmmaker Waad Al-Khateab and Edward Watts’ anti-Assad documentary “For Sama” (Frontline/PBS), which took home the documentary audience award both at SXSW and the Sheffield International Documentary Festival.
Tribeca Film Festival
Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s high-profile “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”–profiling controversial Theranos entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes — launched at Sundance before its HBO premiere. And Academy governor Roger Ross Williams’ affectionate portrait of the famed 125th Street venue “The Apollo” (HBO) opened Tribeca this spring. HBO picked Cannes, which tends to leave major documentaries out of competition but does elevate titles like Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winner “Amy,” to debut his profile of famed soccer player “Diego Maradona” (October 1). Again, Kapadia reconstructs archival footage to amazingly dramatic results. (HBO didn’t give a qualifying run to its well-reviewed Sundance debut, four-hour Michael Jackson expose and Emmy contender “Leaving Neverland.”)
Amazon Studios acquired out of Sundance “One Child Nation” (August 9), Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s brutal expose of the ongoing impact of China’s One Child Policy that won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary.
Fresh off its “Free Solo” Oscar win, NatGeo will throw its promotional chops behind its Sundance debut, Richard Ladkani and Sean Bogle’s eco-thriller “Sea of Shadows” (July 12), an expose about the world’s endangered smallest whale, as well as “Last Man in Aleppo” Oscar nominee Feras Fayyad’s new Syrian documentary, “The Cave.”
Signs are that Apple will throw all its marketing and distribution resources at its first buy, “Elephant Queen,” a moving portrait of a charismatic elephant matriarch trying to save her family.
Contenders are listed alphabetically. No film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.
“The Edge of Democracy”
“The Amazing Johnathan”
“Ask Dr. Ruth”
“The Biggest Little Farm”
“Cold Case: Hammarskjold”
“David Crosby: Remember My Name”
“The Great Hack”
“The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”
“Knock Down the House”
“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story”
“Mike Wallace Is Here”
“One Child Nation”
“Sea of Shadows”
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?”