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 more than 30 documentary contenders and counting in the 2020 Oscar field.
Ace non-fiction distributor Magnolia’s Sundance roster included 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 world-changing author, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” (June 21); and Avi Belkin’s hard-charging journalist profile “Mike Wallace Is Here” (July 26).
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 and the Critics Choice Documentary award for Best Political Documentary, sharing the best 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 widely-viewed “The Great Hack” (July 24), a terrifying examination of Cambridge Analytica and its impact on global elections including the 2016 U.S. presidency.
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. Martin Scorsese’s well-reviewed fiction/documentary hybrid “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” may not pass muster with the exacting documentary branch, which may look askance as well at fall festival entry “Tell Me Who I Am,” Ed Perkins’ compelling family saga about twin brothers that relies heavily on dramatic reenactments.
Playing multiple festivals from Sundance and Berlin to a Best Documentary win at San Francisco is iPhone migrant road movie “Midnight Traveler” (Oscilloscope).
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 archival profile “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” ($16.1 million worldwide), 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, hit theaters again for July’s 50th anniversary events, scored the Critics Choice Documentary Awards Best Documentary Feature, and returns in IMAX in December.
And “The Biggest Little Farm” ($4.9 million worldwide), cinematographer 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 and Macedonia Oscar entry “Honeyland” (July 26), an environmental film about a beekeeper in Macedonia, which took home the World Grand Jury Prize and is earning more nominations as it plugs along in limited release. It won the Best First Feature Documentary Critics Choice Award.
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 as well as the IDA’s Courage Under Fire award.
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. 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 March 18 HBO premiere; the documentarian’s second potential contender, a profile of Russian whistleblower “Citizen K,” debuted well at fall festivals before a November 22 release by Greenwich Entertainment. (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 heart-wrenching “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 and Emmy wins, NatGeo is pushing Sundance debuting 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” (October 18), which debuted at TIFF 2019. Lauren Greenfield continues to follow the wealthy with her twisty Imelda Marcos Philippines exposé, which debuted at Telluride and TIFF, “The Kingmaker” (November 8, Showtime).
Premiering at Tribeca was moving portrait “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” (CNN Films, Greenwich Entertainment) from Bay area Oscar veterans Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Another music documentary, Ron Howard’s “Pavarotti” (CBS Films) followed an unusual release pattern, debuting via Fathom Events in June, then opened in limited release stateside while playing festivals around the world.
And new content provider Apple is throwing its marketing and distribution resources at its first buy, “The Elephant Queen” (October 18, A24), a moving and visually sophisticated portrait of a charismatic elephant matriarch trying to save her family.
Contenders for the shortlist of 15 are listed alphabetically. No film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.
“The Biggest Little Farm”
“The Edge of Democracy”
“The Elephant Queen”
“The Great Hack”
“One Child Nation”
“Sea of Shadows”
“They Shall Not Grow Old”
“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”
“Ask Dr. Ruth”
“Cold Case: Hammarskjold”
“The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”
“Knock Down the House”
“Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”
“Mike Wallace Is Here”
“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story”
“The Amazing Johnathan”
“Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache”
“David Crosby: Remember My Name”
“Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People”
“Running with Beto”
“Tell Me Who I Am”
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?”