Where Have All the Specialized Films Gone?

Documentaries are outpacing narrative films, as the summer field looks thin at best for the struggling arthouses.
The Fall of the American Empire Denys Arcand
"The Fall of the American Empire"

News coming out of Cannes 2019 was upbeat for multiple acclaimed specialized titles. They are still months away from domestic view, per usual. What is different this year is the lack of summer  releases to supply the theaters needed to sustain these later films. A year ago, within a week or so of this early June weekend, three notable narrative titles with strong reviews, “American Animals,” “First Reformed,” and “Hearts Beat Loud,” all played to decent business at core theaters. And then “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” burst into the mix, continuing the current wave of powerful documentary performers.

Whatever the varying quality, no limited opener this weekend is likely to amass a total gross of $250,000. That’s partly because they face serious competition from both “Booksmart” (United Artists) and “Rocketman” (Paramount), which debuted on thousands of screens after launching with splashy major festival attention. Both competed for the same pool of viewers. Even key specialized theaters share their audiences with competitive chain cinemas that boast a clear advantage.

Next week, Amazon has opted to open “Late Night,” in a late reversal, as a two-city platform for marketing purposes. The New York comedy will likely open well. But it will quickly go wide in both starving arthouses bearing the week-to-week risks of specialty play–they’re reliant on documentaries these days– and the more robust chains.


The Fall of the American Empire (Sony Pictures Classics) – Metacritic: 57; Festivals include: Toronto 2018

$7,210 in 2 theaters; PTA: $3,605; Cumulative: $2,706,000

Denys Arcand, with one Foreign-Language Oscar (“The Decline of the American Empire”), has delivered several successful American releases. This Quebecois film was released in French Canada over a year ago to considerable local interest. After an English Canada debut at Toronto (where it won the national cinema prize), this weekend the film finally reached New York, Los Angeles and some new Canadian dates. The North American total this weekend is $15,928 in nine theaters. Needless to say, these are small numbers, not helped by mediocre reviews.

What comes next: SPC as usual will give this a national presence with most usual cities finding play over the coming weeks.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau Domino

Domino (Saban) – Metacritic: 39;  also on Video on Demand

$(est.) 2,000 in 9 theaters; PTA: $(est.) 222

As the most recent entry from established director Brian De Palma, this badly reviewed day-and-date release marks strictly token theatrical play (for contractual and marketing reasons).

What comes next: Home viewing all the way.

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank (Greenwich)  Festivals include: Rotterdam 2005

$4,619 in 1 theater; PTA: $4,619; Cumulative: $7,014

Reinforcing the ability of documentaries to get theatrical play, this initial domestic presentation of a film about the legendary photographer — initially shown on British TV back in 2004 — opened at New York’s Film Forum last Wednesday, and found some respectable early response.

What comes next: Los Angeles this Friday starts a release featuring both theatrical and non-theatrical dates.

Echo in the CanyonGreenwich

Week Two

Echo in the Canyon (Greenwich)

$105,678 in 14 theaters (+12); PTA: $7,548; Cumulative: $260,480

After a phenomenal two-theater Los Angeles debut (near the Laurel Canyon homes of many of the film’s musical legends), this documentary opened in New York and elsewhere without concert boosts. The results remain positive, but the weekend in a dozen more theaters grossed less than last weekend. Still expect this to get decent further results.

The Spy Behind Home Plate (Ciespa)

$22,950 in 5 theaters (+4); PTA: $4,950); Cumulative: $38,403

Even though this documentary follows “The Catcher Was a Spy” last year, this retelling of the same story of baseball catcher Moe Berg is finding initial interest. After its strong Washington debut, it added a handful of other northeast regional dates including New York with more evidence of potential. Los Angeles and San Francisco continue the expansion this weekend.

The Tomorrow Man (Bleecker Street)

$21,016 in 18 theaters (+14); PTA: $1,168; Cumulative: $55,009

Blythe Danner and John Lithgow both have drawn major interest in recent specialized successes as leads (“I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “Love Is Strange” respectively). This romantic comedy is falling short of expectations.

Halston (1091)

$14,903 in 4 theaters (+3); PTA: $3,726; Cumulative: $36,505

Los Angeles joined initial dates for this documentary about the fashion icon. These aren’t bad grosses, but the subject seems to have yielded best results via past treatments

The Proposal (Oscilloscope)

$5,025 in 3 theaters (+2); PTA: $1,675; Cumulative: $19,620

This documentary, about a Mexican architect’s archives and the struggle to open them to the public, added two Los Angeles dates this week with a small sampling among ticket buyers.

Woodstock: Three Days That Made a Generation (PBS)

$12,150 in 7 theaters (+5); PTA: $1,735; Cumulative: $22,142

Closing in on a half-century since the seminal event, this documentary about how the rock festival came about and its impact added the Bay area and the upstate area to its initial New York date. This doesn’t look like a top-grosser so far, but it has further national openings starting with Los Angeles over the next two weekends. The appeal of the topic should guarantee it interest further ahead.

Ongoing/expanding (grosses over $50,000)

The Biggest Little Farm (Neon) Week 4

$421,000 in 275 theaters (+96); Cumulative: $1,827,000

The impressive totals for this biodiverse agriculture documentary has found major interest beyond its initial strong openings. What is particularly impressive is what now has become common for top non-fiction films. 275 theaters (which likely will increase) used to be rare for this kind of film. Now it’s a reachable plateau. The movie might add substantially to its already impressive total.

“The Souvenir”A24

The Souvenir (A24) Week 3

$138,950 in 74 theaters (+51); Cumulative: $465,766

Having grown a reputation in Britain, Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical first widely released stateside film is getting elevated handling from A24, with modest response so far. It remains the best-reviewed release of 2019, nearly half way into the year.

The White Crow (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 6

$120,456 in 212 theaters (-153); Cumulative: $1,521,000

The gross for this biopic on the young ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev will fall short of what similar titles, particularly those about major creative performers, have delivered.

All Is True (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 4

$95,570 in 81 theaters (+17); Cumulative: $469,770

Branagh/Shakespeare/Dench/McKellen. All once guaranteed interest, but even with those assets, this movie lookings to fall significantly short of the $1-million mark.

Non-Fiction (IFC) Week 5

$84,146 in 84 theaters (+24); Cumulative: $462,987

Olivier Assayas, Juliette Binoche, positive reviews and a more cerebral feel than the usual rare subtitled success these days has yielded a modest result.

Amazing Grace (Neon) Week 11

$65,280 in 100 theaters (-52); Cumulative: $4,212,000

Still nabbing interest, this documentary made during Nixon’s first term and held up by rights issues  has become one of the biggest specialized grossers of 2019.

Also noted:

Photograph (Amazon) – $48,397 in 81 theaters; Cumulative: $306,536

Red Joan (IFC) – $47,842 in theaters; Cumulative: $1,502,000

Tolkien (Fox Searchlight) – $45,000 in 94 theaters; Cumulative: $4,479,000

Photograph (Amazon) – $48,397 in 81 theaters; Cumulative: $306,536

Meeting Gorbachev (1091) – $18,341 in 27 theaters; Cumulative: $192,064

Apollo 11 (Neon) – $15,746 in 15 theaters; Cumulative: $8,755,000

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.