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Why Uplifting Documentaries Took Over the Box Office in 2018

Documentaries have a reputation for being, as Jerry Seinfeld put it at the 2007 Oscars, “incredibly depressing.” But not this year.

While 2018 has seen its share of high-profile political docus, including Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9” and Errol Morris’ “American Dharma,” audiences seem to be in serious need of inspirational non-fiction films that don’t deal directly with politics. The evidence is the abnormally lofty documentary box office numbers over the summer.

At the height of popcorn season, when franchises were taking over multiplexes, Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about Fred Rogers — the minister and famed children’s TV host — drew in more than $22 million domestically in 14 weeks. That’s the highest amount a documentary has made theatrically since 2013. (Last year’s largest-grossing doc was Disneynature wildlife film, “Born in China.” It netted $13.8 million.)

“What Mr. Rogers did with his show was to help kids navigate the fear they felt and didn’t understand,” says Neville. “And that’s exactly what he does for adults too. It’s what we all need right now; a chance to think about what’s important.”

Meanwhile, “RBG,” about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, garnered an impressive $14 million, while “Three Identical Strangers,” about the astonishing reunion of separated New York triplets, took in just over $12 million. Focus Features released “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” while “RBG” and “Three Identical Strangers” were released by Magnolia/Participant Media and Neon, respectively.

“In a different political moment, would these films have done as well [at the box office]?” asks Neville. “No. I mean they would have done well, but we’re definitely in a moment where people are looking to put their hopes and fears into something meaningful. Buying a ticket to ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ or ‘RBG’ feels like you’re making a statement in a way, at least to yourself.”

CNN Films clearly has a handle on empowering protagonists and great stories. This year the film arm of the cable news channel was responsible for “RBG,” “Three Identical Strangers” and “Love, Gilda” about the late “Saturday Night Live” star Gilda Radner.

“I don’t want to say that people won’t watch things that are depressing or challenging, but at the end of the day when you’re exhausted from everything else that is coming at you, what do you want to go spend your money on?” asks Courtney Sexton, vice president of CNN Films. “I believe that these positive stories are breaking through because of that factor.”

Sexton says CNN Films didn’t just get lucky with “RBG” and “Strangers.” Instead the company consciously chooses stories that are “impactful, meaningful and, you could say, positive.”

In addition to the trio of docu box office stars, there are a slew of other uplifting docs that struck a chord with festival audiences around the country. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Free Solo,” Alan Hicks and Rashida Jones’ “Quincy,” Cameron Yates’ “Chef Flynn” and Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s “Science Fair” all made an impact with festival audiences.

Free Solo,” about rock climber Alex Honnold’s hair-raising ascent of Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan, garnered the Toronto Intl. Film Festival’s people’s choice award as well as the Critics’ Choice Documentary award for most compelling living subject matter. In addition, in late September the National Geographic film had the best screen average of the year to date. The docu took in $300,804 when it debuted on four screens, translating to $75,201 per location. To date, the film has picked up $3.8 million theatrically.

“There’s a climate right now for docs, but in particular uplifting ones,” Vasarhelyi says. “It’s about people wanting to see a story that’s real, but also inspires.”

Chin adds, “Alex is inspiring in the sense that besides climbing El Cap, he’s constantly trying to face his fears.”

Despite a focus on child slavery, Derek Doneen’s “The Price of Free” could also be considered inspirational. About Kailash Satyarthi, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Indian activist whose team has liberated more than 86,000 children in India from child labor, slavery and trafficking, the film is hopeful.

The idea for the film came from its producer, Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim. He admits that the subject of child slavery is a tough one that audiences could easily look away from, which is why the doc plays like a thriller.

“We thought that following Kailash, as he risks his life to break into these factories, would play like any gripping suspense film that engages the audience,” says Guggenheim. “Kailash is literally rescuing children from slavery and giving them an education and a great future. So many other issues that we have in the world confound us and lead us to a feeling of hopelessness. But [child slavery] is something that we can stop now.”

Diane Weyermann, president of documentary film and television for Participant Media, served as an executive producer on “The Price of Free.” Participant also released “RBG” in theaters with Magnolia. Weyermann is no stranger to weighty subject matters. During her tenure at Participant she has worked on docs including “CitizenFour,” “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Darfur Now.” But given the current political climate, she admits that turning on the news these days takes a fair amount of courage.

“Right now there is so much divisiveness, anger and fear that permeates the news and our world every day,” Weyermann says. “People are really looking for an inspiring experience that they can revel in.”

Like Participant Media, Impact Partners strives to support docs that are engaging, character-driven, entertaining and that happen to speak to a social issue. In the past 13 years, Impact Partners has provided millions of dollars in equity money to more than 100 documentaries including the Academy Award-winning “Icarus” and “The Cove,” as well as 45 Sundance titles such as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” This year, in addition to “Neighbor,” Impact is behind Dava Whisenant’s “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” about “Late Show With David Letterman” writer Steve Young, whose life is changed when he stumbles into the hidden world of corporate musicals. There are no social issues to be found in the film.

“We could’ve come up with some reason, whether it was cultural history or whatever to justify [supporting the film],” says Impact Partners co-founder Dan Cogan. “But the truth is, I just thought it was a spectacularly fun, incredibly sweet and ultimately moving story about the world of entertainment that I thought people would love to see.”

While Impact began supporting the film a little under two years ago, Cogan admits that there is a “really powerful cultural need” to escape into a story that goes beyond the headlines.

“Regardless of what side of the debate you’re on,” he says, “everyone sees an amount of discord and they would like to find things that take them beyond that.”

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