If this were a different world, the people behind the business of making documentaries could have been tallying up the millions of dollars in profits garnered over the past weekend. We’re not too box office industry focused here at Doc Soup, but last weekend’s premieres of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Searching for Sugar Man, coupled with the recent release of The Imposter, all of which are incredibly commercial, accomplished and buzzed-about documentaries, seems like a good occasion to reflect a little on docs making money in theaters.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry earned $45,000 at five theaters, Searching For Sugar Man opened on three screens with a total tally of $28,500, and Imposter’s third weekend brought in $13,500 on two screens. Imposter, which opened with and astounding $22,379 in its first weekend on one screen, has now made $61,000 in its first three weeks.

For those unfamiliar with box office number crunching, these are truly impressive results. By comparison, fiction indie thriller Killer Joe, which also opened this weekend, and features a legendary director (William Friedkin), movie stars (Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch), and an extensive ad campaign, collected $37,900 at three theaters.

The three documentaries, which I believe will be among the best that will come out all year, are proving that they can hold their own at the box office. As they should. They’re each so seemingly different. Ai Weiwei is a well-told portrait of an engaging artist and provocative dissident. Searching for Sugar Man and Imposter are more innovative in their approach; both films are told like mystery thrillers, the former tracing the path to a forgotten musician, the other to one man’s heart of darkness.

What they all share is that they are each about a particularly engaging individual. Sure, there are failings to these films; Imposter can feel like a TV special at times, with its low-budget recreations; Sugar Man is not tough enough in its reporting (we never break through to understanding the personality of the subject, Rodriguez; and there’s an enormous failing when director Malik Bendjelloul doesn’t fully pursue what happened to the musicians royalty checks from the 1970s); and, in general, Ai Weiwei is too laudatory. But I’m just quibbling; these are all great documentaries that deserve the nearly universal acclaim that critics have been giving them.

Of course, filmmakers can’t live entirely on praise. Nor should they. I think it’s such a shame that their films receive such limited releases. The full potential impact of these powerhouse documentaries is diminished by the theatrical distribution machine. I know distributors, such as ThinkFilm and Fox Searchlight, have been hurt by overselling documentaries, but maybe it’s time to double down.

Consider this year’s documentary box office king, Chimpanzee, which has made a healthy $28 million. Its distributor, Disney, put the film on 1,563 screens on its first weekend, for an average of $6,829 per screen, garnering more than $10 million.

What if Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Searching for Sugar Man, and The Imposter had similar backing? Would audiences have flocked in similar numbers? These films may not be kid-friendly, and they may not star cute chimps, but I bet those docs, especially Sugar Man and Imposter, could have made a good chunk of change with a similar marketing campaign that Disney put behind Chimpanzee.

I just want to ask: What if?

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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