Breakout Docs: How Mister Rogers, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Identical Triplets Became Box Office Stars

It’s said that good things come in threes, and that seems to be the case in more than one respect for Neon’s latest documentary, “Three Identical Strangers.”

Tim Wardle’s film about identical triplets who were separated at birth and adopted by three different families, only to be reunited by chance years later, enjoyed the best per-screen-average for a documentary this year. It earned $171,503 over the weekend, while opening in just five locations — that translates to a mighty $34,301 per-theater average.

This summer has been especially rewarding for documentaries. “Three Identical Strangers” comes on the heels of a pair of sleeper hits, “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It’s a rare summer where one documentary has already crossed the $10 million mark and a second non-fiction film is close behind. It’s even possible “Three Identical Strangers” could complete the trifecta.

Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media’s “RBG” — centering on Supreme Court Justice and certified badass Ruth Bader Ginsburg — just passed $11.5 million at the domestic box office, while Morgan Neville’s documentary on Mister Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” has pocketed $7.5 million in four weeks. Both have cracked the top 10 at the North American box office on two separate weekends. That’s a huge feat for any documentary, but it’s especially noteworthy in the height of popcorn season when highly anticipated franchises touting Spandexed superheroes invade multiplexes.

It’s probably no coincidence that each of these three titles feature wholesome and empowering protagonists. In a news cycle that seems to be perpetually depressing, all signs point to escapism in explaining the box office surge. These films focus on a different kind of counterprogramming, one where hope, sincerity, and reassurance are at the forefront.

Last year, issue-driven projects were among the biggest success stories. “Born In China,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Is Genesis History?,” and “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” ranked as 2017’s top earning documentaries. Those films focused on nature, civil rights, religion, and environmental activism. In 2018, it seems audiences are in need of a little more civic inspiration.

“People are desperate for a great story because every time they turn on the news, it’s the opposite,” Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, said. “It’s a horror story, it’s a shooting, it’s Trump saying something. It’s very negative.”

“People are gravitating toward those stories because we’re looking at real life heroes at a time when the country really needs them,” he added.

A stirring subject matter wouldn’t mean much without a quality product to sell. Something else these features have in common is universal acclaim. Reviews have been stellar since the three critical darlings debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Now, they’ve got the Rotten Tomatoes scores to match — “RBG” is at 93%, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is at 99%, and “Three Identical Strangers” is at 94%. They might not be attracting the same crowd as “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Deadpool 2,” or “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” and that means they don’t have a built-in fanbase. In that case, positive buzz is everything in terms of finding an audience.

“More than any other genre, they have to have great word of mouth, whatever niche they are targeted to,” Bock said. “That’s the successful hallmark of any documentary.”

Through the first half of 2018, there have been 36 theatrically released documentaries. That’s not including the influx of titles on the small screen. Netflix has a seemingly endless supply of documentaries available to stream, while ESPN has found repeated success with its “30 for 30” series and National Geographic as long been the home of powerful historical narratives. All that’s to say a documentary has to be something special to get audiences off their couch and into theaters. 

“There’s somewhat of a renaissance going on with big-screen documentaries,” Paul Dergarabedian, a box office analyst at comScore said. “It’s the same reason people go out to see the big Marvel movie. So they can talk about them with their friends and family. It’s definitely on a different scale.”

Some analysts argue the small screen is creating more of a demand for increased interest in the genre.

“Netflix and streaming services have pushed documentaries into the forefront. Because of that, the appetite has definitely grown,” Bock said. “That kind of storytelling is refreshing to people. Trying to get an honest take in today’s climate is very much needed.”

Could the surge inspire studios to get in on the trend? It’s possible, Bock says. Documentaries are generally inexpensive to produce, and commercial companies likely have a bigger budget to spend on marketing than indies do.

“Don’t be surprised to see a Lionsgate or Paramount documentary released on a wide scale as counterprogramming [next summer],” Bock said. “If they can make $10 million on a $1 million film — for studios that are struggling — what do they have to lose?”

While “Three Identical Strangers” continues to expand its rollout and “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” show no signs of slowing down, “Whitney” — an expose on the life and career of the iconic Whitney Houston — will be the next to test the staying power of documentaries at the box office. If it works, it will be further proof that non-fiction films can hit all the right notes with audiences tired of sequels and reboots.

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