“Free Solo,” National Geographic’s adventure documentary about the first free solo rock climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan, notched the best screen average of the year to date.
The film picked up $300,804 when it debuted this weekend on four screens, translating to $75,201 per location.
If weekend estimates hold, “Free Solo” will also rank as the best theater average ever for a documentary, besting “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Al Gore’s global warming doc pocketed $70,333 per screen when it launched in four locations in 2006. It went on to earn $49 million worldwide.
Filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and photographer Jimmy Chin directed “Free Solo,” which follows free soloist climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to scale the 3,000 foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope.
“Free Solo” currently holds a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Virtual reality offers intriguing possibilities for documentaries.
Before the advent of workable VR, many saw cinema as the medium with the most potential to transport the audience. Now, you can strap on a headset and find yourself anywhere, whether it’s on an island halfway around the world or in someone else’s headspace.
At this year’s Camden International Film Festival, the Storyforms program incorporated over a dozen different documentary VR shorts showcasing this promise.
The festival is an arm of the Points North Institute, an organization which runs several programs for developing artists in nonfiction filmmaking.
Continually at the forefront of documentary trends, the Camden International Film Festival has done a better job of incorporating VR into its lineup than many comparable festivals that run on a much larger scale.
CNN Films became the belle of the indie box office this summer thanks to a pair of unlikely popcorn-season smashes.
The film arm of the cable news channel produced “RBG,” a deep dive into the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and “Three Identical Strangers,” the incredible story of triplets separated at birth.
The two documentaries went on to gross $14 million and $11.5 million, respectively. Those are lofty numbers for niche movies, particularly of the non-fiction variety.
“Both movies benefited from a lot of water-cooler talk,” said Courtney Sexton, vice president of CNN Films. “There is a hunger out there for meaningful stories.”
Ah, summer! The season of superhero blockbusters and exhilarating action movies – enterprises that demand little more of us than shutting down some of our brain power and sinking into cushy stadium seats.
But the summer of 2018 has put a wrinkle in that pattern. We’re in the midst of a mini documentary boom, during a season in which a surprising number of people have made the effort to go out to the movies – to see a nonfiction film.
Since its June release, Morgan Neville’s documentary portrait of beloved TV personality and children’s advocate Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” has grossed $22 million at the box office.
Two other docs – Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s homage to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “RBG,” released in May, and Tim Wardle’s potent and unsettling adoption saga, “Three Identical Strangers,” which opened in June – have also hit big at the box office, grossing some $13.7 million and $10 million, respectively.
It’s too soon to tell if this current love affair with documentaries is the beginning of a trend or simply a testament to the quality of these three films. But sometimes numbers tell a story that has less to do with profit statistics than with an almost indescribable state of yearning: What if this summer’s big documentaries – and a few others that aren’t as splashy but are still worth your time – are giving audiences something they didn’t know they needed?
At a time when the press is under constant attack and many of our government leaders operate under a rather elastic definition of the truth, maybe audiences are looking to connect with stories they can truly believe in.
Icarus (Netflix) Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (Netflix) Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like (PBS) Spielberg (HBO) The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (HBO)
Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series
American Masters (PBS) Blue Planet II (BBC America) The Defiant Ones (HBO) The Fourth Estate (Showtime) Wild Wild Country (Netflix)
Outstanding Informational Series or Special
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN) Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath (A&E) My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman (Netflix) StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson (National Geographic) Vice (HBO)
Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program
Icarus (Netflix) Jane (National Geographic) The Vietnam War (PBS) The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (HBO) Wild Wild Country (Netflix)
Exceptional Merit In Documentary Filmmaking
What Haunts Us (Starz) Jane (National Geographic) City of Ghosts (A&E) Strong Island (Netflix)
Imagine Entertainment Chairmen Brian Grazer and Ron Howard have launched Imagine Documentaries, a venture to develop and produce feature documentaries and non-scripted television projects.
Grazer and Howard have named Justin Wilkes to run the division, which will be based in New York. Wilkes, who has been the long-time President of Entertainment and a partner at RadicalMedia, has worked closely enough with Grazer and Howard to have developed a shorthand.
Wilkes collaborated with Grazer and Howard on “Jay Z’s Made in America” (on which Howard made his documentary debut as director) and more recently on the hit National Geographic series, “Mars.” Wilkes co-created and exec produced that series. Its second season debuts this fall.
Imagine has always shown an interest in documentaries, with earlier efforts including “Katy Perry: Part of Me,” “Inside Deep Throat,” and “Beyond The Mat.”
The venture follows Imagine’s Howard-directed Grammy-winning “The Beatles: Eight Days A Week” and the upcoming documentary on Luciano Pavarotti which Howard is also directing.