Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Box-Office Star: Documentaries Are Hot This Summer

Sundance and Cannes titles focused on the legal icon, Fred Rogers and Pope Francis have had staying power in theaters.

The surprise star of Sundance isn't quite putting up Black Panther numbers. But Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the subject of Julie Cohen and Betsy West's doc, RBG, is now a box-office force.

The film, which plays like a superhero origin story that traces Ginsburg's arc from young mother and Harvard Law standout all the way to the Supreme Court, has nabbed $9.2 million since opening May 4. That makes RBG, bought for less than $1 million by Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media, the highest-grossing acquisition of the festival.

The next best Sundance film is The Orchard's American Animals, which has earned just $417,089 (though a number of high-profile titles like Sam Levinson's Assassination Nation and Keira Knightley starrer Colette will open later this year).

The secret to RBG's success could be credited to Participant's ability to enlist partners with deep reach for its campaign, including Bank of America, which hosted a screening series in 18 local markets.

Given that Ginsburg co-founded the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, that organization served as a natural ally, with ACLU affiliates spearheading events in nine cities nationwide for local community members. "From the first screening at Sundance, it was clear that the film would have an impact with audiences of all ages," says Diane Weyermann, president of documentary film and television at Participant.

Michael Moore's $119 million blockbuster Fahrenheit 9/11 notwithstanding, documentaries rarely cross the $10 million mark at the box office. Only 25 have done so — mostly concert or nature films. And though Sundance provides a buzzy launchpad for docs, it doesn't necessarily translate at the multiplex.

Consider that RBG already has earned more than 26 times the top Sundance doc acquisition of 2017, Long Strange Trip, the previously untold story of the Grateful Dead that grossed $351,957. The Al Gore-fronted An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which made its world premiere at Sundance 2017 but was not an acquisition, took in $3.5 million domestically.

In general, this year's festival docs are putting up strong numbers. Following its Cannes world premiere in May, Wim Wenders' Pope Francis: A Man of His Word has scored $1.8 million in the U.S., and the Fred Rogers doc Won't You Be My Neighbor? — another Sundance hit — rang up $470,000 in just 29 theaters in its opening weekend ending June 10.

As for RBG, Participant CEO David Linde attributes its success to "not only the quality of storytelling but the achievements of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her life's legacy." He adds: "Her story is inspiring, now more than ever, as the country takes a hard look at equality and parity."

A version of this story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

comments powered by Disqus