Tom RostonAs the curtain rises on another entry into the blogosphere, let me quickly introduce myself: My name is Tom Roston, and I was a Senior Editor at Premiere magazine — where I covered movies 24/7 for ten years — until that publication folded this year. I have always been a passionate fan of documentaries, particularly theatrical docs, and had planned for years to write a feature celebrating the most influential documentaries of all time at Premiere. I missed my chance, so now I’m deeply grateful to the good people at POV, who have thrown out a small patch of carpet on the Internet for me to expound on everything doc-related. I’ll be writing a post every week here on the POV Blog, and I plan to write about whatever documentary issues are on my mind or are on the minds of POV Blog visitors like you. I’ll be happy to field whatever you’ve got — whether it’s gripes, groans or gratuitous gossip.

But enough about me — let’s start with a bang. Or, rather, the whimper heard at the box office this year by documentaries. What the heck happened? Since 2003, each year has seen at least one monster box office winner (with over $10 million in receipts) alongside at least six other films that make more than a million dollars. But not this year. The big fish was once again served up by Michael Moore (Sicko has made more than $24 million), but the only other films in the million dollar club are the Iraq War doc No End in Sight and In the Shadow of the Moon, which chronicled NASA’s Apollo Mission. (In the Shadow of the Moon can hardly be seen as a financial success considering that distributor ThinkFilm paid more than $2 million to acquire the rights to release it.)

The most common explanations I’ve heard from distributors and filmmakers are the following: It’s cyclical (so, don’t worry); There’s a glut of product (so, it’ll sort itself out); and all independent and/or serious fiction films are taking a hit, so docs might as well too (so, don’t worry, it’ll sort itself out). I’ve also heard rumblings that it’s the distributors’ fault, that they’re overreaching in their marketing plans, going for too mainstream an audience. And that with so many docs released in the fall season in an attempt to capitalize on Oscar heat, the films were lost in a sea of serious fictional releases. On the other hand, I’ve heard counter rumblings that it’s the filmmakers’ faults, that the films themselves are just not up to the caliber of previous years.

I spoke with one high-level docucrat who actually applauded this new downturn, indicating that if fewer docs succeed, the industry can shake off the pretenders and the doc establishment can keep doing what it’s doing — making strong docs about important issues — without the extra fanfare or unrealistic expectations.
I couldn’t disagree more. I love to see docs entering the mainstream, and when I say mainstream, I don’t mean watered down, soulless or without social and artistic merit. All I’m talking about are films that attain popular interest, enough so that a sizable quorum of people think it’s worth it to see the film in the theater. Which is to say: films that have an impact on the culture at large. The previous five years have seen such a flourishing of great documentaries that have clearly connected to audiences. It’s a pity this year has not seen the same connection.
But I don’t want to start our relationship by leaving you on a sour note. So, first I want to acknowledge that just because there wasn’t boffo box office, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t a slew of great docs this year. And, let’s take a moment to recognize that a few years ago, no one in his or her right mind would have said that a documentary about health care could have a chance at making a penny at the box office. Sicko did more than just that, lighting the fuse on a national discussion that lasted much of the summer, prompting some critical thinking about our twisted healthcare system.

Now, that’s the power of documentary film.

Try the Soup
Why do you think documentaries tanked at the box office this year?

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen