What's Driving the Boom in Nonfiction Filmmaking?

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'Won't You Be My Neighbor?', 'RBG' and 'Three Identical Strangers' became surprise hits over the summer, taking in a combined $47 million at the domestic box office.

The unexpected box-office success of three summer titles — 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?,' 'Three Identical Strangers' and 'RBG' — is fueling a resurgence in the genre as audiences search for a Trump-free zone and "an alternative to the blockbusters."

Sandwiched between Sundance and Cannes, the Tribeca Film Festival is not known for generating heated bidding wars. But the documentary White Tide sparked just that after its world premiere April 20.

Directed by Theo Love, the film chronicles a desperate man's obsession with the urban legend of a buried mountain of cocaine on a beach in Puerto Rico. Universal and A24, neither of which is a typical doc buyer, duked it out with Netflix, Sony Pictures Classics and HBO to acquire the film. Netflix prevailed, snapping up worldwide rights, and Love immediately signed with CAA. Netflix, which quickly renamed the film The Legend of Cocaine Island, also scored first refusal rights to a narrative remake, a robust subset of the doc market.

In the four months that followed the White Tide acquisition, the docu­mentary forecast has only become hotter, with three Sundance films — Magnolia's RBG, Focus' Mister Rogers pic Won't You Be My Neighbor? and Neon's Three Identical Strangers becoming summer phenomena. May's RBG earned $14 million domestically, while the June bows Won't You Be My Neighbor? and Three Identical Strangers have earned $22 million and $11 million, respectively (each film cost less than $2 million to make). All that bodes well for sales agents representing docs heading into the Toronto market.

"What you're seeing is people embracing the idea of documentaries as alternative programming to the big action movies," says Submarine's Josh Braun, who sold Three Identical Strangers and White Tide.

There's no shortage of documentaries that have made waves at the multiplex, from Michael Moore's all-time champ Fahrenheit 9/11 to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. But they are typically one-offs (even last year's An Inconvenient Sequel earned just one-seventh of Inconvenient Truth's domestic total). What's different about 2018 is that it marks the first time three docs have eclipsed the $10 million threshold within the span of eight weeks.

Why audiences supported the trio remains open to debate. Focus' Kiska Higgs, who bought worldwide rights to Morgan Neville's Won't You Be My Neighbor? two months ahead of Sundance, gives an unlikely nod to Netflix and Amazon. "Certainly, watching more and more documentaries on streaming services may have acclimatized audiences to engage with those types of stories and then go see them in theaters," she says. "Otherwise, I don't know if you can draw a pattern from these three."

Cinetic Media's John Sloss, who sold Julie Cohen and Betsy West's RBG and Wim Wenders' Pope Francis doc A Man of His Word, points to the fact that there was no must-see indie drama this summer, giving docs a chance to find a larger audience (the indie breakout Sorry to Bother You, which is the third-highest earner out of Sundance, is a satire). Still, Sloss doesn't see much spillover at the international box office.

"This has been largely a U.S. trend," he says. "Traditionally, it has been said that because the quality of documentaries on TV in Europe is so high, people don't go to the movies to watch them. But Pope Francis did nearly twice the business in Germany that it did in the U.S. ($3 million versus $1.9 million), so that's the exception to the rule."

Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers — which follows a trio of young men who meet in New York in the 1980s and learn that they are triplets who were separated at birth — would seem best poised to find traction overseas given that it explores a storyline that is universal, albeit fantastical. Universal acquired worldwide rights excluding North America and is set to open the film in the U.K. in October. In July, Film4, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Raw Partners struck a deal for narrative remake rights.

Endeavor Content's Christine D'Souza Gelb, who was part of the team that worked on the Won't You Be My Neighbor? deal, says the three summer-hit docs all tapped into a feel-good sensibility, which is desperately needed in the Trump political climate of bare-knuckle Twitter bashing.

"Even though they’re documentaries, I think all those movies offer a sort of escapism and joy," she says. "True stories speak louder than fiction especially in the current political climate. There were so many distributors saying after the fact, ‘We want films like Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ Distributors have become weary of darker themed films that struggle to get people into theaters."

One acquisitions executive credits the subscription service MoviePass with boosting docs' box office. "People like seeing a documentary if it's free," the executive says. "But what happens if MoviePass — or the current iteration of MoviePass — goes away?"

Regardless of what is driving docs' theatrical revival, there's a clear beneficiary: doc filmmakers looking for investors.

"You can get a significant budget for a documentary now, if the project justifies it," says producer Leo Pearlman (I Am Bolt), who is currently in production on a Motown doc.

But will distributors start ponying up top narrative rates as they look for the next doc superstar? Braun is skeptical.

"If everyone going to Toronto thinks the buyers are going to suddenly pay $5 million or $10 million just because three films had huge successes," he says, "I don't think that's going to happen."

Scott Roxborough contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.