When the Oscar nominees are announced this Thursday, there may be more at stake for documentary filmmakers than who needs to go shopping for the perfect dress or beard trimmer. Awards shows might be trivial and silly in many ways, but they can have an impact on a film’s fortunes. And they can be indicators of industry trends and transitions. And, this year, there could be more at stake.

“It is very important for this movie to do well; to get that nomination, to get the box office,” director Michael Moore told me recently while sitting in Cinetic Media’s New York City offices, about his most new film, Where To Invade Next, which is on the Oscar short list. It might sound self-serving but hear this out. We were talking about the recent “rumble,” as he put it, in the documentary community, over distributors and studios becoming wary about releasing documentaries theatrically because of their decreasing return on investment.

“If I fail with this,” he said, “Then that’s just going to be used by everybody; ‘If Michael Moore can’t do it, then why should we do it with you?'”

Let’s step back for some context. When Moore’s Roger and Me made $6 million after being released in 1989, it was more money, by a long shot, than any other documentary film. And with 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, he broke more records at the box office with $21.5 million, a massive sum further fueled by Columbine winning the Oscar for Best Documentary. In 2003, there were a series of other documentaries, including Super Size Me, Winged Migration and Spellbound, that also did incredibly well at the box office.

Other hits followed, including An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins and Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which made an astounding $119 million in 2004, and remains well beyond the reach of any documentary that has come after it.

But times haves changed. Documentaries—at least ones that aren’t about a boy band or a Disney nature feature—are not performing as consistently well at the box office. Recently, Moore told me, the head of an independent distributor who had championed docs, told his agent that he isn’t interested in documentaries any more.

Moore asked Sony Pictures Classics heads Michael Barker and Tom Bernard why the studio suits in general are retreating from documentaries.

“I asked them, ‘Why is it harder for documentary filmmakers to get distributors?'” he told me. “And they said, ‘It’s because after your success, too many distributors wanted the same success that your films got. And too many of those documentaries were TV documentaries.'”

Moore explained this “TV documentary” phenomenon as such; “When you go to a theater at the Lincoln Plaza or Angelika and ten minutes into it, you’re watching a Lifetime movie—not to put down Lifetime movies, but you know what they look like—you ask, ‘Why am I paying $12?’ This is their theory. People started to say, ‘Why am I paying $12 when I can see it for free on HBO or PBS?'”

I asked Barker about this and he wanted to clarify things a bit. It’s true, he said, that after Roger and Me, “All of a sudden, consumers looked at documentaries as a possible form of entertainment,” he said. Also, with the advent of mainstream reality television, along with Moore becoming the first legitimate documentary movie star, audiences began to see nonfiction in a new way.

“Movies were working in the theatrical market place,” Barker said. “You were seeing them the way they were meant to be seen.”

Sony Pictures Classics was a part of that trend with Winged Migration, Fog of War and, more recently, Searching for Sugar Man.

Now, however, there is “a huge glut of documentary film and so many of them don’t deserve to be released theatrically,” he said. If there are 25 or so films released on a Friday, and many of those films are documentaries, audiences just don’t know which is worth schlepping to a theater to see.

And so Barker says that, “we’ll always be in the documentary business but we have to be more cautious now,” he said, making sure that the only documentaries they support are ones that can get a “distinctive theatrical release.”

Barker declined to weigh in on Moore’s bleak domino scenario if Where To Invade Next doesn’t succeed at the Oscars or box office. The film had a limited release at the end of 2015 and will be distributed nationally in February.

I doubt Moore really thinks a doc apocalypse will occur if he doesn’t get a nod on Thursday. (As I noted in a recent post, I think he will in fact get a nomination.) But what happens over the next few months to his film could certainly be a milestone. What’s certain is that the past performances of his films were strong indicators that things were going up.

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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