The Summer Of Documentaries

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A scene from "RBG," a Magnolia Pictures release. (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
A scene from "RBG," a Magnolia Pictures release. (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

With Jane Clayson

Documentaries are making a splash this summer at the movie box office. From “RBG” to “Three Identical Strangers,” we’ve got your front-row seat.


Anne Thompson, editor at large at the online journal Founder of the column "Thompson on Hollywood." (@akstanwyck)

Amy Entelis, executive vice president at CNN Films. Executive producer of "RBG" and "Three Identical Strangers, which are still in theaters, and "Love, Gilda," which opens on Sept. 21.

Morgan Neville, award-winning documentary producer, director and writer. His latest, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" has become the highest grossing biographical documentary of all time.

Interview Highlights

On how well these documentaries are doing

Anne Thompson: "'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' which is Morgan Neville's Fred Rogers documentary, which launched at Sundance to weepy audiences, has just been cleaning up. It's at $20 million, which rivals the heyday of Michael Moore. I mean, he could be passing some of those records soon.

"That's a lot for an independent film. This is Focus Features, the specialty division of Universal. These are platform releases: They go into New York, LA, they get some reviews, then they go to Boston, then they go to Chicago — they roll out over time. And so this is an extraordinary hit to be in [around 900] theaters. If you're talking about a big, 'Jurassic World' kind of movie, you're in like 4,000 screens or something.

"It's something really basic. People are weeping at the goodness of a human being."

Morgan Neville: "Something that I think Fred Rogers embodies, but I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg does, too, and that I think a lot of these films do, is sincerity. These are honest people who believe in what they're doing and are making themselves vulnerable in their beliefs. I just feel like we live in such a cynical era where our politics and our economics, a lot of it can be cynical, and, frankly, a lot of our movies are cynical. I mean, even a lot of our superheroes are cynical these days. So, when you actually get people who are just the most honest-to-goodness believers who are putting themselves out there in that kind of a way, I think it's just profoundly inspirational."

On the decision to make "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

MN: "How do you make a film about a character who, on the surface of things, has no dramatic tension and never changes? Of course, those aren't true, but that's the surface impression. But honestly, the reason I wanted to make the film was that I, for whatever reason, started watching Mr. Rogers speeches. And it just hit me like a ton of bricks, that this is a voice that I don't hear in our culture today. The kinds of things he was advocating for I have just been thirsty for somebody to be talking about those things — about civility and kindness and how we should treat one another. So it was really just a feeling of wanting to spend more time with that voice and give it a platform."

On making "RBG"

Amy Entelis: "This is an era when I think we're looking for some inspiration, some heroes, some hope, and I think in the case of 'RBG,' this is a story of someone who's battled tremendous odds to achieve, really, the most in her field and has affected the lives of so many people. I think it's really easy to look at this movie and realize how many things that she did in her life as a lawyer really paved the way for so many things that we take for granted today. So I think it's a film that exposed a side of RBG that maybe was largely unknown. How she got to the Supreme Court, I think that story was not widely told, and I think laying it out in this film just made it really easy for people to understand how much impact she really has had on people's lives."

On the value of theatrical releases for the documentaries, as opposed to only showing them on TV

MN: "I'll just say, as a filmmaker, I love the theatrical experience. There's nothing like having your audience watch your film together and experience that kind of emotional journey. But the other thing about the theatrical release — and Amy was talking about this, too — is it allows the film to seep into the culture in a way that a singular broadcast just doesn't. You know, the fact that we can have conversations like this, that we can have people write op-eds about these films and really have a cultural discussion. That's something that the theatrical experience allows, and that I, as a filmmaker, really appreciate."

From The Reading List

Deadline: "Film Documentary Resurgence Relieves Political Exhaustion" — "For no obvious reason, the reality mini-surge continues: By next weekend, at least three feature documentaries will have sold more tickets at the domestic box-office than any documentary without pandas that was released last year. The panda doc was Disney’s 'Born In China,' which took in $13.8 million after it opened in April of 2017. That year’s biggest non-panda doc was Magnolia’s 'I Am Not Your Negro,' which had about $7.1 million in sales. This year, 'Won’t You Be My Neighbor?' has already logged over $20 million for Focus, 'RBG' is at about $13.2 million for Magnolia, and, now, 'Three Identical Strangers,' approaching $7 million after selling $1.2 million in tickets for Neon last weekend, is knocking on the door."

The Atlantic: "Documentaries Are Thriving at the Summer Box Office. Why?" — "The surprise story at this summer’s box office hasn’t been superhero movies or franchise sequels (the ongoing success of both, of course, being no surprise). Audiences are also crowding theaters to take in a humbler genre: the documentary. Specifically, documentaries essaying one particularly magnetic celebrity personality, or a singularly gripping tale. The kinds of focused nonfiction narratives that have flooded the new media sphere, whether on Netflix or in the world of podcasting, are doing just as well in wide release—the gentler the movie, the better."

Documentaries From The Hour

Pipe down, "Jurassic World" dinosaurs. This summer, documentaries — yes — documentaries, are the surprise story at the box office. In theaters from Salt Lake City to New York City, moviegoers are crowding in to see true life stories on the big screen. Mr. Rogers, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Pope, and separated-at-birth triplets who find each other.

This hour, On Point: documentaries, the hit of the summer. We have your front-row seat.

— Jane Clayson

This program aired on August 3, 2018.


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