Can ‘Whitney’ Continue White-Hot Summer Documentary Trend at Box Office?

New Whitney Houston doc comes after big success of “RBG,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Three Identical Strangers”

Not many documentaries get released on 450 screens right out of the gate, but Roadside Attractions/Miramax’s “Whitney” will do so in hopes of capitalizing on the passionate fanbase of its subject, music legend Whitney Houston.

There are no projections for the Kevin Macdonald doc, but a reasonable comparison would be “Amy,” another documentary about a recently-deceased musician, which made $1.8 million in its first wide release on 341 screens.

While the second quarter of 2018 set an industry record thanks to franchise staples like “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Incredibles 2,” the box office riches have also trickled down to arthouses thanks to a trio of acclaimed documentaries. First was Magnolia’s “RBG,” a look into the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that opened a week after “Avengers” and has made $11.5 million.

Following “RBG” was Focus Features’ Fred Rogers doc about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” neither of which had a screen count exceeding 1,000 screens. Last weekend, NEON got in on the doc craze with “Three Identical Strangers,” the story of three men who discovered that they were triplets separated at birth. Released on five screens in New York and Los Angeles, the film had a solid per screen average last weekend of $34,301.

Though “Whitney” will be released this week against Marvel’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock notes that this year’s documentaries are filling a niche for adult-oriented alternatives to the usual summer blockbusters that is typically filled by films like last year’s indie hit, “The Big Sick.”

“This year there isn’t a drama from Sundance that is really standing out, but the documentaries are getting a lot of buzz,” Bock said. “And on top of that buzz, they have subjects that are really matching the political climate, with a documentary about a Supreme Court Justice and another about a TV star that promoted kindness. That’s been a big extra boost to their word of mouth.”

Bock also thinks that the recent commitment by Netflix and other streaming and TV outlets to documentaries has helped create a resurgence for the genre. Netflix’s two original docs, “Icarus” and “The White Helmets,” as well as ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” are among those that have come away with wins at the Oscars recently and have found mainstream popularity.

“Netflix has actively promoted documentaries on their front page and have gotten them in front of a larger audience, and that includes some other recent big films like ‘Blackfish,'” Bock said. “I think that’s definitely increased more interest in seeing documentaries in theaters, and when the docs that are in theaters arrive on streaming they’re bound to become even more popular.”

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