Indie producers usually don’t have the luxury, or inclination, to adapt a Disney theme park ride or Marvel comic into a film. Their closest to sure box office bets, aside from low-budget horror fare, now appear to be projects with pre-sold themes and subjects that are often based on celebrities — the indie world’s version of brands. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Sundance’s biggest 2018 doc hits and many famous names in its 2019 lineup.
On the heels of last year’s indie hits about Mr. Rogers, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Ku Klux Klan, this year’s doc slate features such well-known (and sometimes infamous) subjects as alleged sex offenders Michael Jackson and Harvey Weinstein, Trump’s infamous mentors Roy Cohn and Steve Bannon, David Crosby, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Halston, Miles Davis, Mike Wallace, Leonard Cohen, Anton Yelchin, Toni Morrison, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Apollo 11, the Satanic Temple and the seminal sci-fi horror film “Alien.”
On the narrative side, Annette Bening plays Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Zac Efron takes a stab at Ted Bundy, Ine Marie Wilmann plays ice-skating movie star Sonja Henie, Keira Knightley portrays Iraq War whistleblower Katharine Gun and Shia LaBeouf a thinly veiled version of his father opposite Lucas Hedges as LaBeouf junior. “Native Son” offers the name recognition of Richard Wright’s classic 1940 novel in its third filmed version.
“I don’t know if I’m getting depressed or excited,” jokes Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper after hearing this list of celeb-heavy subjects from the lineup. “I think it goes all the way back to what’s getting financed, because there are many films [with famous subjects] that we didn’t show, as well. It does seem to dominate, especially in the documentary world, and it goes to both sides: films about people that are really inspirational and those on the other side, when you look at Roy Cohn and even [ex-Theranos CEO] Elizabeth Holmes.”
Cameron Crowe is now part of this movement, with a rare producing credit on a feature he hasn’t directed, “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” a doc based on the musician he’s known since the early ’70s. Unlike exec producer credits that famous filmmakers often take to help a project get financing, Crowe was more hands-on here, conducting interviews and recruiting other subjects. He’s also noticed the influx of high-profile names in other indie docs.
“I was thinking about that, because in the news cycle, everything is bite-sized to get your attention for a quick pop, but there’s a part of you that says, ‘There’s got to be more there about this person that I’m interested in,’’’ Crowe says. “Then you get a doc about Mr. Rogers or ‘RBG.’ So while a lot of these films are pre-sold, the great thing about the docs is they can take you to places you hadn’t been given the time or opportunity to learn from before. That’s what we tried to do with Crosby, because you knew certain things about him — wild past, liver transplant, CSNY breaking up — but we fill in the blanks.”
One reason for all the star subjects is financiers’ growing concern about what will make audiences get off their couches and into theaters, instead of just creating another doc to fill a basic cable channel’s slate.
Most of Matt Tyrnauer’s docs have covered famous subjects, from 2008’s “Valentino: The Last Emperor” to 2017’s “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” and 2018’s “Studio 54,” the latter two featuring tales of stars’ sexual peccadillos. This year’s competition doc “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” delves into the history of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s closeted gay wingman (also explored in the 1992 HBO biopic “Citizen Cohn”) and his impact as a mentor of Donald Trump.
Yet even with a background in celebrity journalism as a former Vanity Fair editor, Tyrnauer sees these starry facades as just the means to an end. “ ‘Valentino’ is not a celebrity profile, but if I asked financiers to back a movie about the geriatric gay relationship between two gentlemen who live in Rome, the money might not have flowed as rapidly as the premise of a movie about a famous designer who made dresses for everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Julia Roberts,” he says. “There’s no question that we live in a culture that responds to fame and celebrity, but for me, that’s not enough to hang a film on. I’m always looking for the deeper themes underneath that.”
Tyrnauer raised initial funds for “Cohn” through indie film financing program Sundance Catalyst, “which gave us a running start that made the completion financing a relative breeze to raise, [in part because] of the recognition that this was a topic of great [political] urgency and importance.”
Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles picked up worldwide rights to “RBG” with Participant Media after its 2018 Sundance premiere (with producer CNN Films retaining U.S. broadcast rights). It grossed $14 million in U.S. theaters.
“I thought it was going to do very, very well, because it was almost the cinematic equivalent of the Women’s March — the mood was just right in the country for the film,” Bowles says. “The filmmakers did an underrated job of making this subject matter very entertaining, and a lot of people didn’t know about landmark cases she brought before she became a Supreme Court justice. I think that, plus the love story, is what made it transcend into a theatrical performer.” Magnolia made large group sales to law firms and other groups, while Participant helped with marketing and some NGO screenings, all helping make it a word-of-mouth hit. He has similar high hopes for the free-speech issues raised in “Hail Satan?,” the U.S. doc competition entry he acquired about the Satanic Temple before its Sundance premiere.
Focus’ longtime marketing president Jason Cassidy saw the value in having beloved childhood icon Mr. Rogers as the subject of the doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” acquired just before it was announced as a 2018 Sundance Doc Premieres entry. “Anytime you can have some level of name recognition and awareness to help you cut through the noise, it’s absolutely helpful in creating a brand identity for the movie,” Cassidy says. “But it helps immeasurably when the movie is so good. It was that adult movie that you had to see this summer, so going in and treating it like a bigger feature and not thinking of it like a documentary was the approach.”
Of course, not every big-name subject is a guarantee for box office success. For every $8.4 million-grossing hit such as A24’s Amy Winehouse doc “Amy,” there’s one similar to SPC’s opera legend doc “Maria by Callas,” which earned a meager $1.2 million despite the subject’s large cult following, partly due to lackluster publicity.
But Focus’ Cassidy has a point about selling docs in the same way as narrative features, with the star power of its subjects replacing the star power of actors playing characters.
“I do hear a lot of casual conversation, amongst people who like to go to the movies, that their favorite films to see are documentaries,” Tyrnauer says. “In a lot of ways, non-fiction filmmaking on a theatrical scale has replaced that type of intelligent, mid-level budget film that used to captivate us all. It seemed like the last golden age of narrative film before the robots descended.”
While it’s understandable that financiers and distribs will gravitate toward backing content with a built-in audience — and Sundance will showcase the best of the crop it’s given, just as it has long included a few star-driven indie features to attract sales and press in Park City — where does this leave discoveries that Sundance was built to highlight?
2018 pickups from Neon illustrate the dilemma: the distrib turned the torn-from-the-headlines triplets mystery doc pickup “Three Identical Strangers” into a $12.3 million hit, but its $10 million acquisition of the much-hyped thriller “Assassination Nation” only earned $2 million, and two other narrative Sundance pickups — “Revenge” (with AMC Networks’ streaming video service Shudder) and “Monsters and Men” (with the troubled MoviePass Films) — earned just $102,000 and $500,000, respectively.
“I think there’s still plenty of room for discovery here,” says Sundance’s new director of programming Kim Yutani. “Especially in the U.S. dramatic program and the Next lineup, there are a lot of new filmmakers who haven’t had a Sundance premiere yet.”
Hopefully a glance at some of the top-grossing entries from last year’s edition of Sundance — the thrillers “Hereditary” ($44 million) and “Searching” ($26 million), and the harder-to-classify “Sorry to Bother You” ($17.5 million) and “Eighth Grade” ($13.5 million) — will encourage distribs to take some chances on adventurous filmmakers with daring, outside-the-box stories. “Crosby” producer Crowe, for one, is optimistic.
“As you see with the Queen movie [“Bohemian Rhapsody”], there’s a non-fiction wind blowing that’s kind of cool,” Crowe says. “And it will blow the other way — people will start telling more non-celebrity-based stories, and it’ll feel fresh like crazy.”