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Documentaries Are Now the Art-House Lifeline, But Even the Best See Limited Results

"Apollo 11" is the year's biggest nonfiction hit, but documentaries won't make up for the collapse of top independent releases.

"Apollo 11"

“Apollo 11”

Covering specialized box office has largely come to mean covering documentaries. They’re no longer a subset; these films are the top performers for art-house theaters. But as distributors begin the fall-festival prowl for new titles, the nonfiction market isn’t as strong as it might appear.

Documentaries — the ones that play festivals, not the concert films, special events, Disney nature films, and right-wing polemics — dominate art houses. Using the most recent week as an example, there were 23 specialized titles. Of these, 12 were documentaries. A year ago, there were 24 titles and six were docs. The year prior, 18 titles and three documentaries.

“Maiden”

TIFF

While there may be many, more-complex reasons for the increased public interest in documentaries, their box-office presence is easily explained: Narrative films have died off, and nature abhors a vacuum.

Art houses once relied on a diverse range of distributors to supply films outside awards season that would gross between $25 million-$60 million, or more. These included titles like “Grand Budapest Hotel” (Fox Searchlight), “Chef” (Lionsgate), “The Big Sick” (Amazon), and “Boyhood” (IFC).

This year, no specialized film has reached even $25 million. The two that came closest — “Fighting With My Family” and “Booksmart” (both United Artists) — opened in over 2,000 theaters or were there by week two. A24’s “The Farewell” is the top slow-expansion title at $14.7 million; second place goes to Bleecker Street’s “Hotel Mumbai” at $9.7 million.

That would seem to suggest buyers should pursue nonfiction at full throttle, but a closer look at the performance of these films suggests that non-fiction may have reached a point of diminishing returns.

"The Farewell"

“The Farewell”

A24

For documentaries, under $5 million is the new normal

Last year saw several major documentary successes with Focus Features’ “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” at just under $23 million, as well as Magnolia Pictures’ “RBG” ($14 million) and “Three Identical Strangers” ($12.3 million). This year, despite the higher percentage of docs, only Neon’s “Apollo 11” is among the top 10 specialized releases at $9 million.

“Pavarotti”

The new normal for top specialized documentaries is under $5 million. Current examples include CBS Films’ “Pavarotti” ($4.6 million), Neon’s “Amazing Grace” ($4.45 million) and “Biggest Little Farm” ($4.4 million), Greenwich’s “Echo in the Canyon” ($3.3 million), and Sony Pictures Classic’s “Maiden” ($2.5 million).

With lower acquisition and marketing costs, and post-theater revenues, these are all decent showings. And while some dropoff is to be expected, the extent is disconcerting. In January-August 2018, specialized docs grossed about $63 million. The same period this year was $34 million, a drop of about 45%.

Documentaries behave like franchises

In one respect, documentaries have begun to act like their tentpole counterparts: There’s a limited scope for what gains public traction. The palette includes celebrities like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Fred Rogers, and Luciano Pavarotti; nostalgia, like “Echo in the Canyon” and “Apollo 11;” and some intriguing, innovative unknowns like “Three Identical Strangers,” “Biggest Little Farm,” and “Maiden.” All appeal to a sense of shared community and a celebration of people or ideas.

This is nothing new. Michael Moore, who created the documentary as blockbuster, saw his hits find great interest among liberals; numerous right-wing similar polemics have had a similar impact. Concert films and others focusing on pop figures have dominated lists of top documentaries for decades; “Woodstock,” the biggest documentary ever, grossed over $300 million adjusted.

However, many of the best titles don’t occupy the comfort zone. Great reviews haven’t helped tough-subject films like Amazon’s “One Child Nation;” despite strong backing, awards potential, and access to top theaters, it will be lucky to gross $500,000.

"Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am"

“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”

Greenfield Sanders Studio

“Who’s streaming it?”

In June, Magnolia released the well-reviewed “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” in a similar fashion to its 2017 hit about another African American author, “I Am Not Your Negro.” Morrison died less than two months after its release, making it even more topical. However, it will end up grossing under $1 million; the James Baldwin biopic earned over $7 million.

What’s changed? A friend who recently recommended the Morrison film got this response: “Who’s streaming it?”

While it’s news when “The Irishman” goes to streaming 27 days after its theatrical release, documentaries have always been platform agnostic. Their presence in the home is long established, and the continuing rise in streaming only reinforces that expectation. The public may expect to see even top titles on their TVs as soon as they hear about them, which creates serious friction for distributors who want those fans in theaters.

Even so: Expect buyers to fervently pursue the best-received documentaries at Telluride, Toronto, and other festivals in coming months. They generally cost less than fiction narratives, their release templates are well established, top specialized theaters are happy to carry them, and they appeal to niche audiences who can be located through targeted advertising buys.

And for small exhibitors, these films are a lifeline. Unlike the trend for high-end independent releases like “Late Night” and “Booksmart,” their play will mostly be at core arthouses. Documentaries offer these theaters the chance to offer something that sets them apart from multiplexes.

The thing that documentaries can’t do, however, is make up for the discouraging performance of their fiction-based counterparts.

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