×

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.”

More Film

  • Sylvester Stallone Variety Cover story

    Sylvester Stallone Feels Robbed of an Ownership Stake in 'Rocky': 'I Was Furious'

    Sylvester Stallone shares an uncanny, symbiotic connection with Rocky, the underdog boxer character he created four decades ago — a kindred spirit who served as his creative muse in spawning one of Hollywood’s most successful film franchises. In his long career Stallone also played another memorable screen role — John Rambo — but Rocky was [...]

  • Beware of Children

    First Trailer Released for Venice Days Entry 'Beware of Children' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the first trailer for Dag Johan Haugeruds’ politically and socially charged drama “Beware of Children,” which premieres as part of the Venice Film Festival’s Venice Days section. The pic, which is being sold at Venice by Picture Tree Intl., features the dramatic aftermath of a tragic incident in [...]

  • The Tower animated film about Palestinians

    ‘The Tower’ Animation Wins Japan's Skip City Festival

    “The Tower,” Mats Grorud’s animation about the plight of the Palestinians, as viewed through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl in Beirut, won the grand prize in the international competition at the 16th edition of Skip City International D-Cinema Festival. The film also scooped the section’s audience award. The Skip City festival, which launched in [...]

  • For web story

    Transgender Immigrant Pic 'Lingua Franca,' Thriller 'Only Beasts' to Bow at Venice Days

    New York-based Filipina filmmaker Isabel Sandoval’s “Lingua Franca,” about a transgender immigrant, is among 11 competition entries, all world premieres, that will launch from the Venice Film Festival’s independently run Venice Days section. The only U.S. entry set to compete in the section modeled on Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, “Lingua Franca” is Sandoval’s third work. It [...]

  • Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big

    Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big At Durban FilmMart Awards

    DURBAN–Female-driven narratives and daring portraits of queer culture around the continent were the big winners at this year’s Durban FilmMart (DFM), the industry program of the Durban Intl. Film Festival, which handed out awards at a ceremony Monday night at the Southern Sun Maharani Hotel. Among the prize-winners were the story of a Zimbabwean woman [...]

  • Oscar Nominations Reactions Phyllis Nagy

    Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy Runs for Writers Guild Presidency, Citing Agency Stalemate

    Oscar-nominated screenwriter Phyllis Nagy is challenging Writers Guild of America West’s incumbent president David Goodman, citing his handling of the bitter stalemate between the WGA and Hollywood agents. Nagy announced her candidacy online Monday night, a day before the deadline for filing. She made the announcement  in a private online group as part of Writers for [...]

  • Klaudia-Reynicke

    Locarno: Summerside Picks Up ‘Love Me Tender’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rome-based Summerside Intl. has acquired international sales rights to Klaudia Reynicke’s “Love Me Tender.” The second feature from Peru-born and Switzerland-based filmmaker will receive its world premiere at the Locarno Festival in its Filmmakers of the Present competition, which focuses on first and second features. Summerside Intl. is the world sales agent, excluding and Lichtenstein [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content