The theatrical market for documentary films is in “robust shape,” with 2019 proving to be a strong year for the genre after an exceptional 2018, reports Oli Harbottle, head of distribution and acquisitions at leading U.K. documentary outfit Dogwoof.
Harbottle says 2019 was always going to struggle to match 2018’s “blockbuster” year, which saw the release of hits “RBG,” “Free Solo,” “Three Identical Strangers” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” All four surpassed $10 million in ticket sales at the U.S. box office, with “Free Solo” taking nearly $30 million worldwide.
“The big question was whether 2018 was a weird anomaly and a bubble with those four films,” says Harbottle. “I would say thankfully no. It looks like the market is in robust shape in terms of documentaries that have been able to deliver at the box office this year.”
Although this year hasn’t seen the same number of blockbuster successes, space doc “Apollo 11” has performed strongly in the U.S. and the U.K., where it has taken $9 million and $1.8 million (£1.4 million) respectively, with its U.K. release handled by Dogwoof. Nick Broomfield’s “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” has also done well for Dogwoof in the U.K., achieving $900,000 (£700,000) at the box office.
Elsewhere, biopics “Pavarotti” ($7.6 million worldwide), “Amazing Grace” ($7 million) and “Diego Maradona” ($2.6 million) have also drawn strong audiences.
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There has long been debate about whether the streamers, which have focused heavily on feature documentaries, would disrupt the market for non-fiction titles in movie theaters. Harbottle thinks not, arguing that the platforms have helped to boost the audience for theatrical documentaries. “They have been a force for good in terms of opening up the genre to new and younger audiences,” he says.
Harbottle says that films that punch through at the box office will always be ones that deserve a cinematic experience. They will either be large-scale docs like “Apollo 11,” with its technically impressive footage, score and sound design. Of they will be “water-cooler” films, like “Free Solo” and its tale of superhuman achievement, which catch the zeitgeist.
Some films “just work in terms of people seeing them in the community,” says Harbottle, citing biopics about sports or music icons that have an inbuilt audience. Smaller films also perform well on limited release after playing well on the festival circuit, says Harbottle, citing Dogwoof’s release this year of environmental film “Honeyland.”
Dogwoof is out in force at IDFA this week, with 10 staff attending. Harbottle says the IDFA Forum is “very important,” describing it as a “real scouting opportunity for us,” and as an opportunity to keep abreast of emerging documentary trends from around the world.
One of these trends is the emergence of lots of films from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Dogwoof, for example, is handing sales for Mexican documentary “La Mami” by Laura Herrero Garvin, which has its world premiere in competition at IDFA. Also at IDFA, Dogwoof is representing Sophie Dros’ “King of the Cruise,” which plays in the Dutch Documentary competition.
Looking ahead to next year, Harbottle predicts a wave of films about the turbulent political era that society is witnessing, particularly with the growth of populism and a more nationalistic politics. He also expects to see more environmental films, but perhaps ones that try to provide solutions on how to tackle the crisis. He’ll also be looking out for “crazy stories” where truth is stranger than fiction: “They’re such a joy to discover, and can really catch the zeitgeist – they are the nuggets we are always desperate to find.”