Finally, some good news for those who like a sprinkling of fact in their films: barely a month past the mid-year mark, Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama, appears poised to outperform last year’s top-selling historical movie, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures.
Hidden Figures, about black female mathematicians in the space program, opened last Christmas and over the next 30 weeks took in about $169.4 million at the domestic box office. That placed 14th among films released in 2016, well behind those animated animals in Finding Dory, Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets, The Jungle Book and Sing. But Dunkirk, with nearly $103 million in domestic ticket sales for ten days (and considerably more abroad), looks likely to best that mark. If so, it will bring some badly needed encouragement for executives and filmmakers who are about to dump an annual cascade of reality-based movie dramas on viewers who lately have been inclined to ignore the flood.
Last year was especially rough for the real stuff. Only two history-rooted films joined Hidden Figures in the domestic Top 50—Sully was Number 24, with $125.1 million in ticket sales; while Hacksaw Ridge placed 46th, with $67.2 million. Behind them came a slew of disappointments and also-rans, including Deepwater Horizon, 13 Hours, Patriots Day, Snowden, Free State Of Jones and The Birth Of A Nation. The year’s best picture Oscar-winner, Moonlight, had factual roots, but was a personal story; it bested La La Land, a Hollywood bagatelle.
You could blame Trump. But 2015 was only a little better for reality-based film dramas. That year, only five of them, led by The Revenant—Number 13, with $183.6 million—landed in the Top 50, while journalism-based Spotlight, the big Oscar winner, stalled at Number 62, with just over $45 million in domestic sales. The last real historical bell-ringer was American Sniper, which topped the North American box office with more than $350 million in domestic sales after its release by Warner Bros. in 2014.
This only matters if you’re worried about a growing split between art and commerce. As the gap closes in television, it has been getting wider in film, threatening to swallow any studio executive daring enough to back a Concussion or an Everest—ambitious, reality-based films that delivered only middling performance.
This year, the verdict remains out on Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s look at its namesake city’s 1967 riot. The weekend’s take—something over $365,000 in 20 theaters—is a fragile beginning for Annapurna Pictures, the film’s just-launched distributor.
The next beat will be followed closely by the makers of Marshall, The Catcher Was A Spy, Darkest Hour, I, Tonya, Birth Of The Dragon, The Greatest Showman, or any of the myriad reality-based movies set to grace festival and commercial screens in the next few months.
If Detroit works, so much the better. If not, well, Dunkirk survived.