Doc Talk: How Did 'I Am,' 'Bill Cunningham New York' and 'Forks Over Knives' Become Three of 2011's Biggest Documentary Hits?

Doc Talk: How Did 'I Am,' 'Bill Cunningham New York' and 'Forks Over Knives' Become Three of 2011's Biggest Documentary Hits?

Oct 05, 2011

My first Doc Talk column for Movies.com, back in May, was based around the concept of the “doc-buster.” That was the start of the summer movie season, and so predicting potential nonfiction hits, as alternatives to the mainstream studio releases, seemed to make sense. I mentioned Project Nim as a title I anticipated to do “pretty well.” And as it is still my favorite doc of the year, I’m sad to see it hasn’t been nearly as successful as I’d expected.

Well, maybe it’ll get an Oscar nomination? This week, the DOC NYC lineup was announced, including a Short List program featuring four presumed awards contenders, and Nim is in there. So is The Interrupters, which despite its buzz has earned even less. Page One: Inside the New York Times and Buck round out the group, the former a so-so moneymaker and the latter a very big hit (now on DVD, see below).

I’ll hold off making any of my own Academy Award guesses, even though most of the qualifying contenders have been released by now. I’ll get to that soon. Instead, this week I’m curious about the documentaries that have been making money where Nim, Interrupters and other prominent, well-reviewed titles like Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Tabloid and POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold have not.

I’m not talking about obvious top-grossers like Justin Bieber: Never Say Never or Disney’s African Cats or even Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which turned out to be a doc-buster after all ($5.2 million), perhaps in part to the theatrically imperative, must-see-in-3D factor. I mean a handful of sleeper hits that I wasn’t aware were so successful, like Tom Shadyac’s very mediocre I Am, which is currently the fifth highest-grossing non-IMAX doc of the year with a domestic take of $1.6 million.

Compared to the grosses of Shadyac’s other (fiction) movies, like The Nutty Professor, Bruce Almighty or even Dragonfly, $1.6 million seems like pocket change. But for a cheaply made, non-studio-backed documentary with a 40% score on Rotten Tomatoes and no bigger stars than Noam Chomsky and Desmond Tutu, that’s shockingly good.

I had trouble figuring out how on earth this happened (it’s really not a worthy film) until I discovered that Shadyac appeared on Oprah to discuss his spiritual rebirth, which is the focus of this first-person doc, the exact week the film started picking up steam at the box office. But if that’s the primary reason for I Am’s success, I think Oprah Winfrey should get back into recommending theatrical releases rather than acquiring titles for her struggling cable network.    

Next up is Bill Cunningham New York, a little profile on an old man whose name I wouldn’t suspect would bear much interest either outside of New York City or beyond a small, scattered population of people with a real passion for fashion. Yet Richard Press’s doc has been a word-of-mouth-aided holdover phenomenon across the nation and is up to a $1.5 million gross as a result, mostly because the titular photographer is such a lovable and inspiring subject. Never mind its 98% review score, as we know that doesn’t necessarily help.

I finally watched the film recently via Netflix Instant, having stupidly avoided it in the 30 weeks it’s been in theaters. And I can easily appreciate its popularity. It’s a more satisfying New York Times doc than Page One; it’s a more concise look at the Carnegie Hall eviction issue than Joseph Birdman Astor’s simultaneously produced Lost Bohemia; and of course it also appeals to the fashion-loving moviegoers who made recent films like The September Issue and Valentino: The Last Emperor successful.

But thinking of it in relation to I Am, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something to their similar focus on happy-go-lucky men who live in surprisingly modest conditions because of their separate sorts of distaste for money and material things.

Perhaps this is a year in which positive stories are preferred over the negative, and so audiences ignore the political, the war and the fear feeding activism docs that might have done better in previous years? Even Conan O’Brien being cranky, chimps being abused and A Tribe Called Quest heavily quarreling are turn offs. Maybe The Interrupters would make more money if it simply celebrated its peace-spreading subjects without actually addressing, let alone showing, any of the violence they’re interrupting.

The food doc audience is also apparently looking for more uplifting material. Although not anywhere near the success that the Oscar-nominated Food, Inc. was two years ago, Lee Fulkerson’s Forks Over Knives qualifies as a sleeper with its $739,561 gross, and it’s currently one of the top ten docs of the year, money-wise. Like I Am, it has a pretty low Rotten Tomatoes score and little else to draw in large crowds other than its upbeat subject matter.

I think its success is related to the fact it’s not the usual foodie activism film scaring us over and over about what the fast food and agriculture industries are doing, even if most of those docs end on high notes recommending organic and locavore diets. Forks, which I also just watched via Netflix Instant, does initially ring alarms regarding health issues and insurance costs, but then it concentrates on a positive outlook of saving lives through whole food, plant-based meals -- aka veganism.

Multi-platform and grassroots strategies of marketing not just the film but its message, social meet-ups and related products (diet and cookbooks, mainly) also figure into the theatrical success of a film like Forks, because it becomes a more engaging experience than just going to the movies.

Of course, this idea is nothing new. Activism and political issue docs have thrived on the cross-platform concept for years, even before social media made it even easier to boost awareness and involvement. Yet, as one writer implies with the case of last year’s Oscar-nominated yet very low-grossing doc GasLand, issue-based films without such strategies aren’t nearly as successful.

What I wonder is if films like Forks and other small but heavily promoted films, whether cause-related or merely great, uplifting stories (as in the case of Bill Cunningham), are more likely to become these sorts of sleeper hits in the wake of the bigger and broader docs finding much of their money through video-on-demand. Titles like Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Tabloid, Magic Trip, The Big Uneasy and The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 might be doing better theatrically if it weren’t for their VOD availability.

It is no wonder that Buck and, to a lesser extent, Page One have been great box office successes when their typically on-demand-focused distributors, Sundance Selects and Magnolia, respectively, didn’t go with day-and-date VOD releases for these docs. It certainly makes them look like bigger hits than they might have seemed, mainly because VOD grosses aren’t ever made public. The same goes for strictly theatrical runs for I Am, Bill Cunningham New York and Forks Over Knives.

This consideration still doesn’t help me understand the low numbers for Nim and The Interrupters, however. I just have to be positive and hope they find bigger audiences eventually, whether through an Oscar push (my pitches to the Academy will be found here in a couple weeks) or just the ease of home entertainment options down the road. 

 

New Releases

My top choice for theatrical openings in the next two weeks is Alma Har’el’s fantastic, award-winning documentary/musical hybrid, Bombay Beach, a wonderfully unconventional portrait of the people and places around the wasteland of California’s once-bustling Salton Sea. Terry Gilliam recommends it, which should give you an idea of its dreamlike awesomeness, and fans of Beirut should understand the magical possibilities of a movie set to their music. As I noted elsewhere back in May, it’s part MTV, part PBS and altogether remarkably fresh. The film opens in NYC October 14, then in LA October 21, and hits VOD on November 1.

My second highly recommended new release is Danfung Dennis’s Sundance-winning Hell and Back Again, another documentary presenting an embedded look at the Afghanistan War that is just as necessary and cinematic as Restrepo but probably won’t do as well, especially if audiences are reminded of this Friday’s ten-year anniversary of the war’s start. Then again, this may be the time to commemorate and honor the troops by supporting an excellent film document, one which also plays like a nonfiction version of The Deer Hunter, brilliantly structuring the story of a Marine’s homecoming so that the war footage functions like flashback sequences. The film opens today in NYC and expands to LA on October 14.

Home video selections include that high grossing hit Buck, which you should probably check out to see what everyone is raving about. I personally found it a bit stretched as far as its point is concerned, yet there are a few incredible moments you need to see. The popularity, box office success and mostly favorable reviews could mean the film has a shot at the Academy Award, too. The film is also finally available on VOD. And if you haven't yet seen Bill Cunningham New York, which has been on DVD and VOD for a few weeks now, that's also definitely worth checking out. 

 

I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic.

Categories: Documentary, Features
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