Successful documentaries stand out any year because with the possible exception of highly-produced non-fiction fare about political advocacy, cute animals or legendary rock stars, they are often viewed as particularly big gambles, even for veteran distributors hardened by the shifting whims of the box office.

Of course, riling up a base of animal lovers, music fans or political partisans are not dollar-making guarantees either, but tapping a crowd just right can hit a theatrical zeitgeist, as in the case of Magnolia Pictures/Participant Sundance doc, RBG — produced by CNN Films. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the doc ushered in what has been a somewhat common refrain among watchers of the box office as the “Summer of Docs”, a triumvirate which includes b.o. champ Won’t You Be My Neighbor? from Focus Features and Neon’s Three Identical Strangers. The three had their premieres at the Sundance Film Festival last January.

“I saw RBG at Sundance and, frankly, I didn’t know how it could lose,” said Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles. “I knew it would work. It’s cinematic and had all the elements to do incredibly well. I think it paved the way for the other two documentaries. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? also had a strong reaction and then Three Identical Strangers had a great hook.”

As of the end of last week, RBG, which bowed first among the trio in theaters, has totaled over $13.9M in theaters. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the “winner” at the box office so far at $22.4M, now greater than Oscar-winner An Inconvenient Truth which took in $24.1M, and Three Identical Strangers, the last to roll out among the three, standing at $11.34M.

Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock

“I think we realized that after Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was shown in Sundance it was emotionally touching people,” said Focus Features president of Distribution Lisa Bunnell. “I don’t think anyone who has a documentary thinks it will do over $20M. I think we had aspirations it would do well and with Morgan Neville in front, that’s [not surprising]. And it’s still continuing…” Not one to rest incidentally, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? director Morgan Neville is at this weekend’s Telluride Film Festival with his latest, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which has gone Netflix.

Having three docs released mere months from each other and going well over $10M is unusual, but not unheard of. 2012 releases 2016 Obama’s America ($33.4M) from Rocky Mountain Pictures, Disney’s Chimpanzee ($28.9M) and Paramount’s Katy Perry: Part of Me ($25.3M) were the last year three non-fiction titles took in eight figures at the box office. Those three, it can be argued, had very large built-in audiences.

“The theater is the only place outside church where strangers can come together and build a consensus around an issue or message,” noted Neon founder Tom Quinn. “Sundance is the grand winner in all of this. I would hazard to guess this is one of the top Sundances [at the box office] of all time.”

RBG
Magnolia Pictures

Of the three doc stars of 2018 (so far), RBG, about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a beacon of the left on the high court, is the most overtly political. A Clinton appointee, she is seen as a champion for gender equality, abortion rights and other issues dear to blue staters. A graduate of Columbia University Law School, she found difficulty early in her career finding a job due to her sex. She nevertheless forged ahead, making her a pillar in shattering glass ceilings for women. Her reputation among the law community and beyond provided Magnolia and Participant an opportunity to tap into long-held pro-Ginsburg sentiment, which proved wildly successful for the film’s theatrical life and, arguably, helped pave the way for the “Summer of Docs”.

“We wanted to light a fire and put an accelerant on the release,” said Participant chief David Linde. “If you can supercharge an audience that is already inclined to like a movie and let them experience it within their own context, it’s a very playable idea. And that’s what we did.”

Appealing to the large swath of Ginsburg brethren in the law community, as well as advocacy groups and beyond, Magnolia Pictures and Participant worked with law firms, NGOs and other groups to organize pre-theatrical release buyouts. Not only did event screenings lay a box office foundation ahead of the title’s early May regular theatrical bow, but the always sought-after word-of-mouth was audience-building gold.

“The early buyouts were organic and then law companies were coming to us wanting to bring their whole offices,” said Bowles. “We put out more feelers and we had an enormous response and that [in turn] brought out other agencies who had simpatico sentiment [for the film].”

Linde said that between Participant and Magnolia, the companies helped organize over 100 theater buyouts around the country.

Three Identical Strangers
NEON

RBG grossed over $578K in 34 theaters its opening weekend ($17K average). By its second weekend, the doc jumped to 179 locations, taking in over $1.18M. The numbers made an impression on others, including Neon, which picked up Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers at Sundance. RBG’s early success prompted Neon to push-back the release date for Strangers in order to leverage awareness of the film from the RBG crowd.

“We were going to go sooner, but based on RBG’s pre-sales, we knew it was going to be a juggernaut, so we moved our date back four weeks,” said Quinn. “We used RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? as extraordinary trailer targets. RBG paved the way. What’s exponentially insane though about Three Identical Strangers’ success is that it’s a narrative doc without the benefit of a known brand, icon or a political theme.”

Three Identical Strangers recalls the story of triplets who were separated at birth and adopted by different parents, only later to find each other years later under fantastic circumstances as teens in 1980. The result made local headlines in New York where they lived, also making them local minor celebrities for a time. Though their story is not completely without prior fanfare, it is likely most people who saw Three Identical Strangers opening weekend knew little to nothing about them. Three Identical Strangers played in five theaters in its opening frame in late June, the fewest of the three big summer docs, grossing $171,503, which gave it the highest opening frame per theater average at $34,301.

Given the fairly tepid built-in awareness of the story, it is a standout. There have been other docs with only very limited familiarity, going into theaters, that have wound up as box office stars — though they’re a precious commodity. In 2003, Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans (Magnolia Pictures), about a typical well-to-do family whose world is transformed when the father and youngest son are arrested for shocking crimes, was a box office success at over $3.1M. And though it delves into music, the doc, Searching For Sugar Man (2012, Sony Classics), which centers on the unlikely search for ‘70s little-known rock n roller Rodriguez by two South African fans, made a very tidy $3.69M.

Neon’s Tom Quinn said his team had gone into Sundance specifically targeting Three Identical Strangers. Quinn, who co-headed now shuttered RADiUS, helped shepherd Oscar-winners 20 Feet From Stardom ($4.94M) by Morgan Neville followed a year later with Citizenfour by Laura Poitras ($2.8M).

“We tested Three Identical Strangers, as we do all our docs, and it did better than 20 Feet From Stardom,” said Quinn. “Strong interest, great trailer targets and exceptional word of mouth created a perfect storm. The film is also a great introduction for people who wouldn’t ordinarily consider seeing a feature documentary. I overheard a kid say, ‘It was more like a movie than a documentary.’”

The fourth feature documentary from Morgan Neville since 20 Feet From Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, had the most opening weekend playdates of the three, grossing $475,419 in 29 theaters, giving it the lowest PTA at $16,394. The title was a hit with audiences, adding theaters quickly, eventually reaching 893 locations in early July, the widest reach of the trio. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will likely land as the highest grosser of the summer non-fiction titles at $22.4M as of Friday.

Though awareness of Mr. Fred Rogers, the man at the very center of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, is certainly there among a large demographic, the film’s release during the age of Trump has likely buoyed the title’s box office prowess as segments of the moviegoing audience look to fete the qualities of kindness, sympathy and understanding readily associated with Rogers.

Roadside Attractions/Miramax Films

“I absolutely think Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reached a bigger audience because of what’s happening in the world. Treat other people how you want to be treated,” said Bunnell. “Watching news can be very depressing and people are looking for sign posts of help. This is a real man and people identified with him. Whatever was going on at the time, he’d address it and make it feel like we could move on — and go on. It’s simple, if we treat other people like our neighbors and just be tolerant and show people love, we’ll get love in return. This country is lacking that right now.”

Beyond the big three, there have been other non-fiction successes and disappointments. Bleecker Street released McQueen in late July, about late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, in four theaters, grossing nearly $99K and it has cumed a very solid $1.14M. Roadside Attractions’ Whitney, about late singing sensation Whitney Houston, has totaled $3M, though given her superstar status, expectations were set high. And though it did cross seven figures, Focus’ Pope Francis – A Man Of His Word is shy of $2M domestically, rather modest give the tens of millions of Roman Catholics in North America.

Briarcliff Entertainment

Looking to fall, doc box office standard-bearer, Michael Moore, will be back with Fahrenheit 11/9, a title play off his wildly successful 2004 doc, Fahrenheit 9/11, which is the all-time doc benchmark at over $119M. Fahrenheit 11/9 will likely bring the number of eight-figure grossing non-fictions in 2018 to four, but for Moore who set the outsized b.o. doc bar long ago, anything lower than the high eight-figures (or more) may seem a disappointment.

The ultimate question is if this year’s non-fiction successes signal a new audience taste for documentary or if it’s another fluke in the cycle.

“I think it’s good for docs in general, but we have to be cautious with it,” offered Bunnell. “What we do too often as an industry is we do too much of [something when successful], and then don’t understand why it didn’t work. I do think the [summer success] bodes well for docs, but the subject matter and quality always have to be there.”