It’s been said that the golden age of nonfiction filmmaking is upon us. From “The Jinx” to “CitizenFour” to “Free Solo,” the documentary sector has exploded creatively and commercially in the past few years. Key to the docu spike has been Netflix’s decision to enter the arena in a big way — and with a fat checkbook. When Amazon and Hulu followed, they helped raise the market value of documentary films to a new high.
Now streaming services from Apple, Disney and WarnerMedia are coming to town. While no one knows what effect they will have on the nonfiction space, if the past years are any indication, the field will become even more saturated, mainstream and perhaps less theatrical than ever before.
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Last year was a banner year for documentaries at the box office. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Academy Award-winning “Free Solo” took in $29 million; Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” grossed $22.8 million and Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG” garnered $14.4 million.
But those were just three of 166 docus made last year that received a theatrical release.
The majority of the 166 docs played in obscure theaters in New York and Los Angeles for just one week in order to quality for Oscar consideration.
In 2012, when a record number 126 docs qualified for Oscar consideration, former AMPAS documentary branch governor Michael Moore attempted to shut the process, known as “four-walling,” down.
At the time, three of the 15 films on the Academy Award documentary feature shortlist — “The Loving Story,” “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” and “Sing Your Song” — had received unpublicized one-week runs on the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley. All three films were HBO documentaries.
The argument was that voters were essentially voting on television docus, not “real” theatrical docus.
So AMPAS implemented a new nonfiction-qualifying rule that required a review in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times for a doc feature to register eligible. The new rule was intended to both narrow the number of qualifying films and, perhaps more important, validate a doc’s theatrical bonafides.
It did neither.
Now, seven years later, Steven Spielberg, like Moore, is protesting the four-walling of narrative films. Like Moore, Spielberg wants films with a true theatrical release — whatever that is — to be Oscar eligible.
What’s clear is that a review in a prominent newspaper isn’t going to ensure a robust theatrical release. It’s also clear that streaming services such as Netflix are here to stay and small theatrical releases followed by a global streaming release are the future.
But what does that mean for the majority of documentary filmmakers whose dream is to see their work on a big screen?
Two-time Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus has more than 30 doc-directing credits to her name, including “The Farm: Angola, USA,” “Bobby Fischer Against the World” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” Her work has been seen on the big screen, networks including HBO and Showtime as well as streamers such as Netflix.
She says that she hopes streamers “continue to support, and expand their support, for theatrical exploitation. Many [streamers] will keep it fairly limited. For those films that really have the kind of subject matter than plays well in theaters, filmmakers may have to forego streamers and work with specialty theatrical distributors.”
But by going with a specialty theatrical distributor such as A24, Magnolia or Neon, doc filmmakers would theoretically have to forgo a massive payday.
Earlier this year both Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” and Rachel Lears’ “Knock Down the House” were Sundance sensations. Wang’s narrative sold to A24 for a reported $6 million to $7 million. Lears’ docu “Knock Down the House” made history when Netflix scooped it up for a whopping $10 million. Wang has said publicly that a streamer offered her more than double what A24 ultimately paid, but the writer-director wanted a proper theatrical release for her film, so she went with the lower offer.
Lears became the envy of the docu community when she went from struggling nonfiction filmmaker to millionaire.
“Knock Down the House” is one of seven documentaries Netflix four-walled for Oscar contention. The remaining six films are “American Factory,” “The Black Godfather,” “The Edge of Democracy,” “The Great Hack,” “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” and “Tell Me Who I Am.”
Netflix declined to comment on its plans for each film’s individual Oscar campaign, but Lears says she isn’t worried about “Knock Down the House” getting lost in the crowd.
“Netflix has done this before and they know what they are doing,” Lears says. “‘Knock Down the House’ came out in May, and I felt really great about the media moment that it generated at the time. Now our biggest challenge is reminding people about the film. I hope they will take another look before making any decisions.”
There is no recorded box-office revenue for “Knock Down The House” or any of Netflix’s qualified docus.
We know more about the three docs Neon qualified this year. They are “Apollo 11,” “Honeyland” and “The Biggest Little Farm.” “Apollo 11” grossed the most with just over $12 million worldwide while “The Biggest Little Farm” grossed just over $5 million worldwide and “Honeyland” $710,000 thus far.
“We are wholly invested in the theatrical documentary,” says Neon co-founder Tom Quinn. “We think that the theatrical experience sets these films apart from [the other docs in the race]. And we will approach each film as an equal contender. Meaning each film is very singular in terms of how we approach each film’s campaign.”
While Quinn says that he does not find it frustrating that Netflix, fellow streamers and television companies four-wall their docus, he is aware that the while Neon’s trio of docs has theatrical bonafides, at the end of the day documentary branch members will be voting for true theatrical docs as well as TV docs.