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‘Free Solo’ Team Reflects on Oscar Win as Documentaries Get More Competitive

On a bustling post-Oscar Monday, “Free Solo” co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin arrive for their photo shoot looking like they’ve barely taken a breath since climbing the stage at the Dolby Theatre the night before to accept the award for documentary feature.

The win for the filmmaking couple represents not only their technical triumph for capturing the wire-free climb of Alex Honnold up the sheer granite face of Yosemite’s El Capitan but also the serious feat of edging out stiff competition in a year of such quality contenders in the doc category.

“This year is about connection for most people,” Vasarhelyi tells Variety, sipping hot water and gazing at her two children, Marina, 5, and James, 3, who have tagged along with their parents to Hollywood’s Milk Studios.

“From ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ to ‘RBG’ to our film, these are communal experiences,” Vasarhelyi adds. “People are in a theater with people they don’t know, and they have this intense experience.”

Quite a few people, for that matter, considering that the low-budget National Geographic release is hovering near the $20 million mark at the domestic box office. It’s no secret that nonfiction films are in the midst of a renaissance, fetching mid-seven-figure acquisition prices at festivals and captivating audiences on numerous platforms.

“I think it’s got a lot to do with the streaming services,” says Vasarhelyi, acknowledging prolific buyer-producers like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. She also credits increasingly sophisticated audiences, which are more prone to accept nonfiction as entertainment and are lured by the high level of talent being drawn to work in the space (like Jordan Peele and his Amazon project “Lorena,” which focuses on the story of Lorena and John Bobbitt).

The category has been noticeably hotter since 2014’s “Citizenfour,” about NSA spy Edward Snowden, made international headlines as must-see watercooler fare. On its heels was “Amy,” about tragic singer Amy Winehouse, which also went on to win the Oscar and gross nearly $24 million worldwide. The 2016 winner “O.J.: Made in America” caused a sensation for producer ESPN Films, even with its weighty run time of nearly eight hours.

The documentary field had been sleepy since the close of the early aughts, when Michael Moore reinvigorated the genre in 2002 with “Bowling for Columbine,” and when “March of the Penguins” stole hearts in 2005 and earned $127 million at the worldwide box office (grossing more than any best picture nominee that year).

Chin attributes the latest doc boom to the rise of Trump.

“People are also looking for truth,” he says. “Nonfiction filmmaking is still ultimately journalism, especially when it’s not splashed across a psychotic news cycle with constant spinning. There are so many hard decisions and craft, and people lean on that.”

Amid all the serious truth-telling, the filmmakers were happy to have a few laughs on the Oscars’ Sunday-night party circuit, where they rubbed shoulders with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

“We ran into Taylor Swift at the Fox party,” Chin says with a smile. “She said she loved the film, and we got to hear her take. People who are truly the greats understand Alex Honnold’s dedication and love and commitment.”

But the couple prefer rock climbing to social climbing.

“We had very close friends that flew out to L.A. and went to a viewing party, along with a lot of our crew,” Chin says. “It was an emotional moment to see the friends who have supported us for all these years.”

They will next deliver a documentary about former Patagonia CEO and conservationist Kristine Tompkins and her husband, Douglas, and are also considering scripted projects. With Marina and James in tow, the couple paused to grab their two Oscars from a nearby table and took a lingering glance at the new hardware.

When asked what the statuettes mean to them, Vasarhelyi looked at Chin and said simply, “That this partnership works.”

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