This year, the North American box office has seen its usual highs and lows. Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther broke multiple records while expected hits like Solo: A Star Wars Story under-performed (much to my chagrin). Indie films have fared well throughout the past seven months, from A Quiet Place to Book Club to Hereditary. One of the fascinating changes to 2018’s movie calendar has been the popularity of documentaries. The format has endured for decades and found new life through streaming services like Netflix, yet it remains a true surprise to see feature length documentaries getting theatrical releases and making real money from them. This isn’t a niche interest: Audiences are truly hungry for documentaries.
The past few months alone have seen the successful releases of films like RBG, which follows Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Three Identical Strangers, a truly bizarre account of triplets separated at birth; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the story of Mr. Rogers and his impact on children’s television; two separate pieces on Whitney Houston; a riveting portrait of designer Alexander McQueen; and Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth, which promises an insight into Trump-era wealth obsession. There are many others I could name, including those that premiered on channels like HBO or went straight to Netflix, but the focus today is on those that got cinematic releases and made bank during their runs.
It’s not unheard of for documentaries to make money at the box office. Whatever you think of Michael Moore, he was able to do it on more than one occasion with his brand of left-wing populist polemic. Madonna, at the height of her powers, released Truth or Dare and made a mere tour documentary appointment viewing for the masses. However, as modern Hollywood moves further into the business model of expanded universes, mega franchises and gargantuan budgets that make cinema too big to fail, that’s left very little room for low to mid-budget dramas aimed specifically at adult audiences whose primary concern isn’t winning an Oscar.
There are indie producers and distributors helping to keep this part of the industry afloat, but there remains an ever-growing gap between the mainstream fare for families and Summer viewing alike and everything else.
Unlike some people I’ve talked to about this issue, I don’t think this means cinema is in a bad place right now. We always romanticize the good old days and pretend film was universally better in those bygone eras, but they weren’t. That’s not how this works. That’s not to say that things are completely better now, but we’ve never had more choice as viewers, nor have there ever been this many options for creators when it comes to getting their work seen by audiences. The downside to this is that things like documentaries are now assumed to be material fit for streaming services but not cinemas. Audiences will marathon their way through every episode of The Staircase then still leave room for Wormwood but they won’t pay their $15 to see a documentary in the theatre, so the logic goes.
I’d heard some fellow pop culture writers theorize that, in these dark times of political uncertainty and the onset of nihilism as our default mode, audiences would turn to the fantastical stories for pure escapism. There would be no real thirst for reality when we live it every day and feel the smothering weight of it at every opportunity. Instead, viewers would want easy laughs and fluffy romances and stories beyond the allegorical. In reality, I think we’ve taken the opposing path. The pop culture that dominates our atmosphere right now is a mixture of allegory, scale and immersion. We want big-budget superhero stories with larger than life heroes, but we also want them to be more inclusive and have shades beyond the black and white tales of good versus evil. We want our comedies to make us cry as much as they make us laugh, from black-ish to BoJack Horseman to Nanette, because we need to know how to process the stuff that forces us to laugh, if only out of sheer discomfort. We still crave positivity, but we cannot live on fiction alone.
It’s easy to see the appeal of documentaries like RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? under any circumstance but especially in today’s climate. We lack certainty and our heroes continue to disappoint us but then you have real-life footage of Mr. Rogers and Justice Ginsburg living their lives and being good. These are revealing stories but not screeds against our idols. They’re honest but not brutal. These two films, which have made a combined total of over $28.5m domestically, are balms for the mind, the soul, and the torture of the Trump age. As reality becomes ever more surreal, there’s something soothing about a regular reminder that things can be good in simple ways.
These portraits of great and good people aren’t the only kind of documentaries doing well right now. McQueen is a more conventional take on the so-called ‘tortured genius’, as was Kevin McDonald’s Whitney. Three Identical Strangers tells a story that feels too outlandish and conspiratorial to be true and yet it is. It would be too simple to say people watch documentaries to see truth, as well as flat-out inaccurate in regards to what the job of the medium is. However, as someone who probably watches more documentaries and true-life programming in my free time than anything else, I’d say it’s an answer with some worth to it.
We’re in dark times. There’s a great joke in The Venture Bros. where a character screams, ‘There is no good news! Just bad news and weird news.” It’s a line I return to often these days and has defined how I look at the world. If news is fake, what truth do documentaries offer that fiction-based pop culture can’t? Perhaps documentaries are a tool for us to process this, or maybe we’re hungry for reassurance that it’s not just us who thinks things have gotten odd. We want heroes who are worth believing in and even the best storyteller couldn’t make someone as wholeheartedly earnest as Mr. Rogers. And don’t people like that, and stories like that, deserve a canvas big enough to convey their might? It may be the simplicity of truth we desire, and the knowledge that it is always stranger than fiction.
What documentaries, both film and television, have you watched this year that you loved? Let us know in the comments.
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images)