More than a decade ago, documentaries about 9/11, migrating penguins and global warming captivated summer moviegoers. Then, a long drought set in and the genre faced box-office extinction.
That is, until now.
Docs have become the unexpected heroes of the 2018 summer season, beginning with the May release of RBG — an ode to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — and continuing with separate films about the late Fred Rogers, Pope Francis and, in the latest offering, Whitney Houston.
Over the July 6-8 weekend, filmmaker Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney, which looks at the turbulent life and tragic death of the singer, opened to $1.2 million from 454 theaters following its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Roadside Attractions and Miramax partnered on the release of the film, which earned an A CinemaScore and appealed heavily to females (65 percent), as well as to African Americans (72 percent).
“There is very little that the studios are offering for the upscale, older audience,” says Roadside co-president Howard Cohen. “It’s classic counterprogramming. The good news for the indie sector is that it’s been a long time since docs have done this well.”
Whitney was hardly the only doc that prospered over the weekend.
Focus Features’ Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a feel-good bio about Rogers, grossed a sizable $2.6 million as it expanded into a total of 893 theaters in its fifth outing. The film has now earned a stellar $12.4 million, passing up Magnolia’s and Participant’s RBG ($12.3 million) to rank as the top-grossing doc of the year to date. Moreover, it placed No. 9 overall for the weekend, holding its own amid a slew of bigger-budget studio offerings.
Combined, the films Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, RBG, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word and Three Identical Strangers have earned nearly $29 million this summer, the best showing in years for docs, whatever the season. In 2017, for example, the top-grossing documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, topped out at $7.1 million. (Nature docs from the major Hollywood studios or special-event docs from Fathom aren’t included in such lists.)
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has a strong shot of finishing its U.S. box-office run with $20 million in ticket sales, making it one of the top 13 docs of all time, not adjusted for inflation.
That’s a notable victory, considering such rarefied air is generally reserved for nature docs from the major Hollywood studios, concert films or political docs from Michael Moore and his conservative counterpart, Dinesh D’Souza. And Moore could further shake up the box office when his new doc, Fahrenheit 11/9, opens Sept. 21.
RBG is likewise a major win as it winds down its theatrical run. The film already ranks ninth among top political documentaries of all time, not adjusted for inflation. No one in Hollywood invokes President Trump’s name specifically when talking about RBG or Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, but everyone agrees that the current political climate can’t be separated from what’s happening at the box office.
“Won’t Your Be My Neigbhor? and RBG are providing great role models at a time when all of us can use. They offer a sense of idealism, and not tribalism. Certainly, Mister Rogers’ message is very clear — apolitical kindness and compassion. I think people are responding to that,” says Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski.
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, also from Focus, has grossed $1.8 million to date, a strong number for a film that relies heavily on subtitles.
Released by Neon, Three Identical Strangers, a harrowing tale about triplets separated at birth as part of a sociology experiment, has earned a promising $1 million its first 10 days, including $684,773 this past weekend from 51 theaters for a screen average of $13,427.
In summer 2004, Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 made box-office history when earning $119 million at the North American box office, enough to make the summer’s top 10 list.
The following June, docs again made a big splash when Warner Independent’s March of the Penguins waddled to an impressive $77.4 million domestically. And in summer 2006, Al Gore’s 2006 global warming film, An Inconvenient Truth, earned $24 million on its way to winning the Oscar for best documentary feature (March of the Penguins likewise won the Oscar).
In 2012, D’Souza’s 2016 Obama’s America dazzled with $33.4 million.
After that, the going was tough all the way around. D’Souza’s America topped out at $14.4 million in summer 2014, less than half the amount earned by his previous film. Far worse, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power topped out at just $3.5 million in summer 2017.