Can Any of This Summer’s Documentaries Match Last Year’s Slew of Hits?

2019’s docs don’t have “RBG” or Mister Rogers’ appeal, but a surprise may be in store

This time a year ago, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary “RBG” was proving to be a boon for arthouse and indie movie theaters nationwide, becoming the first of several hit summer documentaries. But in 2019, are there any docs that can keep the genre’s hot streak rolling?

Already this year, we’ve seen one documentary find some mainstream success. Neon/CNN Films’ “Apollo 11” rode a mix of strong marketing, critical acclaim and IMAX support to an $8.6 million box-office total during its  approximately 600-screen theatrical run.

That comes off of a 2018 in which five documentaries grossed more than $10 million, the most titles the genre has seen pass that milestone in a single calendar year. Among them were “RBG,” ($14 million) the Mister Rogers doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” ($22.8 million) and the Oscar-winning “Free Solo” ($17.5 million).

This summer, it’s unlikely that such heights will be matched. The docs being released, particularly those that are profiles of famous individuals, don’t have the draw of a beloved Supreme Court Justice or a children’s television host. But there still might be some surprises in store, as was the case last year when “Three Identical Strangers” came out of nowhere to gross $12.3 million and earn an Oscar nomination. Sometimes, a stranger-than-fiction premise or strong word of mouth can be enough to build an unexpected doc hit.

“‘Three Identical Strangers’ was something that came out of nowhere, with a story as strong as any drama you could see in theaters,” said Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian. “A lot of early viewers told their friends ‘You have to see this,’ and that brought in a steady flow of moviegoers throughout its run.”

There are two films that might have a bizarre enough pitch to bring in the curious. In June, Neon will release the Sundance hit “This One’s For The Ladies,” a raunchy but crowd-pleasing tale about a group of women who turn a New Jersey karate dojo into a male strip joint to raise funds to support their community. Critics have praised the film for going beyond just titillation and showing the sense of love and bonding between the women that hold these events.

On the darker side, there’s Magnolia’s “Cold Case Hammarskjöld,” an investigative film that, like “Three Identical Strangers,” concerns a case that turns out to be far more twisted than it first seems. The doc follows an investigation by director Mads Brugger into a 1961 airplane crash that killed UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld, which finds that the plane was actually shot down by a mercenary. What unfolds is a macabre story of sabotage and racism.

Musical documentaries will also be plentiful this summer. CBS Films will release Ron Howard’s “Pavarotti,” a look into the life of the iconic Italian opera singer and his struggles to balance his family with his career and philanthropic endeavors. Sony Pictures Classics will release a documentary on David Crosby, while Greenwich Entertainment will release “Echo In The Canyon,” a film about the 1960s folk explosion in Laurel Canyon that features Tom Petty’s final on-camera interview.

Even if summer 2019 doesn’t see another explosion of doc hits, the commercial potential in nonfiction films is here to stay, and not just in theaters. The explosion of digital media has created new avenues for documentarians to put their films in front of a huge audience. And that’s turned several documentaries into the subject of major bidding wars, like when the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaign doc “Knock Down The House” was bought by Netflix for $10 million.

“The ’30 for 30’ films became a hit for ESPN, there were the dueling Fyre Festival documentaries by Netflix and Hulu, and TV documentaries like ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ and ‘Leaving Neverland’ have made national headlines,” said Dergarabedian.

“People have realized again that documentaries can provide great true stories, and a lot of them are now available with the push of a button. That’s good news for theaters too, because that increases the amount of people who are looking for good docs to see in theaters,” he added. “Even if those docs only combine to make $90 million at most for the box office, that’s still $90 million theaters wouldn’t otherwise have, and it means they can rely a little bit less on waiting for the next big blockbuster to come around.”

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