When it comes to the great surge we’ve seen at the box office for documentaries, “investment by someone or some entity” like CNN Films makes all the difference according to RBG co-director and producer Julie Cohen.
“If you’re making a documentary for $50K, there’s going to be limitations on what the quality is going to be,” said Cohen whose RBG was nominated for two Oscars including Best Feature Doc and rode a long wave that started at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival into last month’s Oscar ceremony.
“Investing in production allows for something better, in promoting and marketing and distributing and the film ends up moving to a place where the money can start coming back,” said Cohen.
CNN Worldwide EVP for Talent and Content Development Amy Entelis also attributed the doc craze to the recent rise in multi-media platforms, which has enabled the non-fiction format to find a greater audience.
“We’re seeing a golden age of storytelling about inspiring people, great characters, really well executed,” said Entelis, “There are many places that this content can be seen. It’s a combination of many places investing, the quality is very high, a cycle is going on. Also in a world where so much information is being given to us in tiny bits and pieces, it’s creating an appetite for something longer and more engaging.”
RBG, which opened on May 4 last year in U.S./Canada, was the first of many theatrical docs last year to lead a rally at the domestic B.O. In the past, such non-fiction fare was largely challenged theatrically with Michael Moore’s titles finding greater crowds. While there were few standout fiction titles at the specialty box office last summer, docs gave arthouse cinemas their beating heart doing double-digit ticket sales. RBG grossed $14M, surpassing 2004’s nutrition doc Super Size Me ($11.5M), and was soon followed by such hit docs as Focus Features’ Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ($22.8M), Three Identical Strangers ($12.3M), Free Solo ($17.2M), and most recently Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old ($17.1M).
And CNN Films just keeps on trucking. Not only did they have RBG, but they aired NEON’s BAFTA-nominated Three Identical Strangers last month, had broadcast rights to the Tribeca Film Festival’s 2018 opener Love, Gilda, and partnered with NEON on Apollo 11 which drew $1.3M in its second weekend at the U.S./Canada B.O. last weekend for a running total of $3.7M.
CNN Films arose at a time “when reality television bottomed out” said Entelis. When shows like Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown began taking off, there was an effort by the network to not label it as reality TV. “Reality TV is fake and scripted, this is a non-fiction TV and we had to create that distinction,” said the CNN exec.
In giving a platform for longer-format news stories such as RBG, greenlighting the zeitgeist story of the day isn’t the recipe for success when it comes to docs. For example, CNN has no plans to make a President Donald Trump documentary at this point in time.
“I think we can make a documentary about anything. Would we do one today (about Trump)? Probably unlikely, because time is a good thing when it comes to these stories,” said Entelis, “Doing documentaries about ongoing stories which we’re all covering now, is not a good idea, because time and perspective help a great deal. And on a practical level the stories evolve so fast, and they cost a lot of money. I tend to want to step back and put the story into perspective.”
“I’ve turned down documentaries about things in the news right now,” added Entelis, “Those stories are evolving fast and you don’t necessarily know where the story is going. You don’t want to jeopardize a project and 22 more things happens.”
While political documentaries are game at CNN Films, “we have to do it in the way where we’re adding to the narrative and giving perspective to the story,” said Entelis.
Doing a doc on Justice Ruth Ginsburg was a no-brainer, and the film began to come together in 2014-2015 well before #MeToo and the recent female empowerment movement, or even this current heyday of Trump. RBG‘s brilliant timing with the current affairs of today, were fortunate and sublime.
When Cohen and her co-director Betsy West pitched Entelis on RBG, there was no question for the CNN exec in regards to making it given the Justice’s impact on equal rights. “Julie got a big jump on something that’s very much in the conversation now,” said Entelis. Cohen and West had the good fortune of having interviewed Ginsburg before: Cohen with her 2014 food doc The Sturgeon Queens about a Lower East Side NYC Lox and herring emporium that the Justice was a fan of, and West who interviewed her on the history of Modern American Women’s Rights Movement. The duo’s sitdown with Ginsburg was two years off from the pic’s greenlight, and so they started conducting other interviews before putting the spotlight on their title subject.
Interestingly enough, Ginsburg didn’t share in the profit participation of the doc, and the parameters were that she couldn’t directly promote the pic.
For Ginsburg, she sees the doc as a teaching tool for generations, akin to the public talks she gives outside the court, on how equal rights can be achieved under the Constitution.