Tuesday, July 24, 2018

What's Up, Doc?

There are numerous documentaries exhibited in theatres each year, but they live in a world of lowered expectations compared to your latest action epic.  Whereas Hollywood blockbusters hope to gross hundreds of millions, for all the thousands of documentaries that have been released, only 27 have made more than $10 million. (Four of them are from Michael Moore, the undisputed king of docs, moneywise.)  $10 million+ is essentially blockbuster status for a documentary.

But this year documentaries are--within their limited standards--hot.  RBG--the Ruth Bader Ginsburg story--has made over $13 million.  Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the story of Mr. Rogers, has made over $18 million and looks like it'll pass $20 million.  And now Three Identical Strangers, the story behind separated triplets, has made over $4 million with a decent shot of making it to $10 million.  And it's only July.

I wouldn't say this represents a trend, since these three films are very different.  But it's worth noting if you tell an intriguing story on a subject people care about, there's an audience.  I admit I often prefer documentaries since the Hollywood formula is so predictable, while you're never quite sure what will happen in real life.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose there's a business model, if you figure you can do it (how does Errol Morris do?)

But is it really true to say there's an audience when you at least want $60 million these days, and, as you say, $100 million is the practical cut off.

5:10 PM, July 24, 2018  
Blogger LAGuy said...

It's a game of expectations. Hollywood blockbusters are generally very expensive, with huge promotional budgets, and so have to make big bucks. (And they often do--the whole Hollywood economy is built on them.)

There are mid-budget films that make less. And there are low-budget films that are happy to make almost anything. This include most documentaries. And since a lot of documentary filmmakers have something to say, they're often on a mission that's about more than grosses.

Of course, not all documentaries get attention through theatrical release these days. There's a huge market on cable and services like Netflix. And there are a number of people who have enough of a track record that they're capable of raising the money, one way or another, to keep working.

5:27 PM, July 24, 2018  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

How much does HBO make on its stable of Documentaries? I realize it's hard to assign HBO's total net profit to particular projects, and probably few people subscribe to HBO primarily for the documentaries, but I assume HBO wouldn't do them (or show them) if they didn't create a profit for the company.

Recently I saw both Mr. Rogers in a theater, and Robin Williams, Come into my Mind, on HBO. I enjoyed both, both were very well done and, for my tastes, not too preachy. I think I enjoy seeing documentaries more at home, especially if watching with others, so there can be instantaneous discussion and reflection on what we're seeing (using the handy pause button).

8:04 PM, July 24, 2018  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Not selling ads, HBO judges programs by more than just ratings. How much luster does a show add to the brand, and how many people might it draw in who wouldn't otherwise pay the premium?

I don't suppose documentaries are a big draw on HBO, but they're a lot cheaper to create than a scripted series, and every now and then one hits the zeitgeist and really gets HBO a lot of attention.

8:46 PM, July 24, 2018  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Brits generate a handful of documentaries (and perhaps more than I know) that are quite good and interesting.

But there's no way they generate much audience. I assume in their case it's a socialist remnant--presumably there are sufficient producers and editors with adequate education to produce good work. But I also suspect that's a wasting asset. Old Man's lament, I suppose. I hope so.

6:10 AM, July 25, 2018  

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