Documentary features had an exceptional year at the box office in 2018, with five earning more than $12 million domestically: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, about TV’s Fred Rogers, the most successful biodoc of all time at $22.8 million; Peter Jackson’s restored assemblage of World War I footage, They Shall Not Grow Old; the Oscar-winning, vertiginous Free Solo; RBG, about women’s rights pioneer Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and the intriguing Three Identical Strangers.
So it made sense that CinemaCon would take note of these landmark successes with a Wednesday morning program entitled “The Straight Truth: Documentaries Mean Business, Big Business.” The panelists included two accomplished filmmakers: Lesley Chilcott, co-producer of Oscar winner An Inconvenient Truth, who showed a trailer from her upcoming Watson, about Paul Watson, the co-founder of Greenpeace who fights aggressively to protect the world’s oceans and their wildlife; and Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor, Studio 54), who presented a trailer from Where’s My Roy Cohn?, a portrait of the ruthless attorney who advised Senator Joseph McCarthy and helped groom the career of Donald Trump. Also on the panel were two distributors, Lisa Bunnell, president of distribution at Focus Features (which released the Rogers doc), and Elissa Federoff, senior VP of distribution at NEON, which currently has the successful Apollo 11 in theaters and is about to open the long-suppressed Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace. Robert J. Lenihan, president of U.S. programming at AMC Theatres, represented exhibition, as did moderator Steve Bunnell (Lisa’s husband), VP, film/content buying and licensing at Alamo Drafthouse. Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore, opened the program with a brief history of theatrical documentaries and an overview of their box-office standouts.
Lisa Bunnell observed that a common thread she sees in successful documentaries is “everyday heroes doing extraordinary things… There are so many people in this world that we look to to give us faith and hope…people who change the world for the better.” She also noted that “as a specialty distributor, you want to have a slate that is diverse. Documentaries are definitely a part of that…and just as important as any other films on your slate and deserving the same amount of respect and time and effort.”
Tyrnauer said that “every film I make, I make as a theatrical film.” He recalled that even though his Valentino was self-distributed in 2009, it still earned nearly $2 million domestically. “It was one of those films that showed that a very tiny indie film could break out. We had no benefit of studio marketing dollars at all. It was a phenom that happened.” He feels recent doc successes “have a similar DNA—they catch the attention of audiences. That special X factor that combines press, marketing and word of mouth is very critical for documentaries. What I learned from self-distributing is how community-based theaters are. You can’t lose touch with the sort of bespoke nature of that type of marketing.” He advised distributors to “listen to the filmmaker when you start your marketing plan. They know the secret codes.”
Lenihan noted that most documentary breakouts “have a built-in narrative.” “Free Solo would be nothing without the story [of mountain climber Alex Honnold and his new girlfriend],” Tyrnauer opined.
For filmmakers considering selling their documentaries to streaming services like Netflix, Lisa Bunnell offered this advice: “You will never have the same experience as you do in a movie theater. You will never be able to have people sit down together and have a shared experience and be able to talk about it together afterwards. It does not happen unless it happens in a movie theater… If you really have something you want to say, put it in a movie theater and give us the opportunity to get groups together and do a Q&A.”
“Documentaries are films, plain and simple,” Chilcott declared. “They have the advantage of connecting [audiences] with real stars, real heroes.”
NEON’s Federoff urged the audience to “think about these films differently. These films work. And there’s a lot of fun to be had [in exhibiting them]. Embrace it.”
“I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to embrace them,” AMC’s Lenihan concluded.
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