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‘RBG’: How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became a Summer Box Office Avenger

While “Avengers: Infinity War” has dominated the box office in recent weeks, a new documentary about a different kind of hero has still managed to draw crowds.

RBG,” a look at the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the glass-ceiling shattering jurist who became a meme), secured the 10th slot at the domestic box office this weekend with $1.16 million. That’s a major feat considering that the non-fiction film, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, was showing in just 180 screens. Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media’s collaboration launched in limited release on May 4 with $560,000 in 34 locations for an impressive per screen average of $16,471.

“It’s a gutsy move on paper,” box office analyst at comScore Paul Dergarbedian said of “RBG’s” summer release. In comparison, Magnolia’s highest-grossing documentary to date, “I am Not Your Negro” ($7 million), bowed in February during the height of awards season.

The top-grossing movies of 2018 so far — Black Panther ($696.2 million), “Avengers: Infinity War” ($547.8 million), and “A Quiet Place (169.6 million) — have become cultural touchstones. It’s rare, but not impossible, for a documentary to become a conversation point. Politically charged pics such as “Fahrenheit 911” and “An Inconvenient Truth” have proved just that.

“It’s almost unheard of to see a [documentary] perform this well in summer blockbuster season,” Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations, said. “For the documentaries to hit $1 million, it’s like a regular film hitting $100 million.”

In the midst of popcorn season, Magnolia is hoping “RBG” will have staying power on a smaller scale against a series of potential blockbusters. After all, “RBG” isn’t exactly competing with the same audiences as “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Deadpool 2,” or “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”

Magnolia strategically aligned its first expansion with Mother’s Day Weekend, as Ginsburg is a mother of two herself. Next week, the studio plans on increasing to around 350 locations.

“I feel like that’s the sweet spot for documentaries,” said Neal Block, head of distribution at Magnolia Pictures. “If you get too far beyond that, you get to theaters that don’t have experience showing documentaries.”

One could question the seasonal timing of “RBG,” but some would argue this is the perfect opportunity for movie with a strong, independent, trailblazing woman at the forefront.

“The film is just a really satisfying and lovely rejoinder to all of the awful news we’ve been reading about in the paper and online about behavior toward woman,” Block said. “She’s brilliant, and she’s dedicated to the causes she believes in. She doesn’t put up with shit from political opponents.”

Ginsburg has been an outspoken voice in the #MeToo movement.

“Strong females is what people want to talk about,” Bock said. “It’s obvious that people want to see it.

And of course, the liberal justice has also sparked attention surrounding her longevity on the bench in era of President Donald Trump.

“Wherever you were two years ago, no matter what side you are on, you probably weren’t as politically aware as you are now,” Dergarabedian said. “Whether you agree with her or not, she was a trendsetter. She was a pioneer. The interest of these filmmakers in her couldn’t have come together at a more perfect time.”

Above all, the stellar track ‘RBG” is headed on is a testament to the woman herself.

Ginsburg has become more than just a trailblazer known for leading the charge on gender equality and women’s rights. The 85-year-old associate justice has captured the zeitgeist to become a pop culture icon. Affectionally dubbed “Notorious RBG,” the outspoken and fierce Ginsburg has inspired everything from memes and apparel to one of Kate McKinnon’s most iconic characters on “Saturday Night Live.”

“When it comes to a blockbuster, it’s more about the concept than the star,” Dergarabedian said. “When a documentary is named after you, all the star power lies with the star of the piece. It really is resting on her.”

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