Earlier this year, director Michael Moore delivered a grim warning to me if his new film, Where to Invade Next, didn’t do well at the box office. “If I fail with this, then that’s just going to be used by everybody [e.g., theatrical distributors]: ‘If Michael Moore can’t do it, then why should we do it with you?'”
Sure, Moore might sound self-aggrandizing, but he’s in a unique position to make such statements having blown open the door for a theatrical box office audience for documentaries. And, lo and behold, his Where to Invade Next, rolled out to an abysmal $3.8 million at the box office, a fraction of what his previous films did over the past decade or so. You could point to various causes for Where to Invade‘s weak performance, from a questionable release date early in the year (if it were released during the Summer of Trump, might it have resonated as a retort from the Left?) to a flawed marketing push to the film’s ability to galvanize audiences.
But I agree with Moore; his film and the fairly flaccid documentary year of 2016 might be a bellwether for the future theatrical life of all documentaries. These things move in cycles and nothing happens in a straight line but the overall trend for documentaries in theaters is going down. This year, another documentary box office stalwart, insipid, right-wing director Dinesh D’Souza, also displayed weakness. He may have the biggest doc this year with Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, which has made $13 million, but that is much less than his 2016: Obama’s America, which made $33 million in 2012. And Imax only had moderate success with A Beautiful Planet, which made $6.2 million. (Disneynature docs are perennial favorites, but there wasn’t one released this year.)
Here are the top ten documentary box office earners this year so far:
Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party: $13 million
A Beautiful Planet: $6.2 million
Where to Invade Next: $3.8 million
Hillsong: Let Hope Rise: $2.1 million
Weiner: $1.7 million
The Beatles: 8 Days a Week: $1.5 million
The Music of Strangers: $1.1 million
Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe: $1.1 million
Dark Horse: $900,000
City of Gold: $600,000
There are more documentaries yet to be released this year and Beatles sure has a lot of life in it, but I think it’s fair to call this a “soft year,” as producer Julie Goldman calls it, adding, though, that she is not “panicking.”
Goldman produced Weiner, which may not be a box office blockbuster, but it is still a success and it has had an additionally strong video-on-demand life, she told me. Alas, she also put out Life, Animated, which I thought could do well with its heartwarming tale and built-in audience of families affected by autism, but it has only made $240,000. Goldman said that the film is going to have a “huge, long tail,” meaning it will have life in ancillary markets including educational settings, but it’s hard not to call it a disappointment. Another miss was Gleason, which was a big hit during its festival run, but it has only squeaked out $580,000 in theaters.
“I’ve had this conversation before,” Goldman says, and she suggests waiting a few years before calling out 2016 as a watershed year. Of course, she’s right, but you have to figure the number crunchers at distributors aren’t going to wait that long. Companies like Orchard, IFC and Magnolia have invested in the theatrical doc game, but they might be getting nervous.
Of course, the rise of streaming is a huge factor. Netflix, Hulu and other older outlets, including HBO, PBS, CNN and Showtime, are churning out so much doc content that’s worth watching at home.
“More people are not watching these films in theaters. They’re watching them on their phones,” Goldman says, and she’s worried about how that might impact her creative mandate. “Here we are trying to do so much to make our documentaries cinematic, which calls for bigger budgets.”
The box office fizzle feels especially incongruous for those of us who spend time on the festival circuit, where we see throngs of excited audiences lining up to see non-fiction films. But the festival market is its own silo. “As a festival programmer, the appetite to see something in theaters in a festival is as strong as ever,” says Thom Powers, who programs docs at the Toronto International Film Festival and Miami Film Festival.
Powers points to Weiner as one of the year’s biggest breakouts because it “had sensational word of mouth,” he says. “Other films didn’t have that sizzle this year. Audiences go to see documentaries to be part of a cultural conversation.”
Indeed, many of the films over the past two years that have had the biggest buzz have been on TV: The Jinx, Making a Murderer and OJ: Made in America. When it’s released in October, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH, which is on Netflix, may be in that league.
“Basically, these theatrical runs are mostly pro forma Oscar qualifiers and branding vehicles in advance of their release on multi-platforms, including TV,” explains IndieWire‘s movie industry guru, Anne Thompson.
Still, Goldman protests that, “everyone hopes their film will be the one that breaks out theatrically.”
I am not saying the sky is falling—just that the business is dramatically changing. And one factor is that streaming service Netflix isn’t beholden to release its number of viewers or how much it’s investing in nonfiction films. And that can make understanding current shifts in the business more difficult to discern.
“The secret of documentaries’ success is how they are doing digitally,” Powers said. “But the numbers are hard to analyze because so much is hidden from us. That’s not a healthy environment for a filmmaking community.”