According to conventional wisdom, audiences for documentaries live on the coasts and vote Democratic. But these are unconventional times.
“Technically, Juneau is a ‘coastal area,’ ” joked Collette Costa, a co-owner of that city’s Gold Town Nickelodeon. “But overall, Alaska is a pretty red state.” Nevertheless, she said, “I’ve had to hold over ‘RBG’ for four weeks now, and it’s the biggest moneymaking film I’ve shown since we bought the theater eight years ago.”
“RBG” — Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s affectionate film biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the associate justice of the Supreme Court and superstar of liberal jurisprudence — is the surprise hit of the season. Since its release May 4, its grosses have exceeded $11 million, a remarkable achievement in 2018 for a specialty film (whether nonfiction, art house or foreign). Similarly, audiences are also saying, “It’s you I like” to the director Morgan Neville’s portrait of Fred Rogers, public TV’s “Mister Rogers.” That movie, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” has collected nearly $7.5 million. (Most documentaries this year earned less than $200,000 at the box office.)
“RBG” has “sold out nearly every showtime for three weeks,” said Brittany Dobish, the artistic director of the Nightlight Cinema in Akron, Ohio. “For a small independent theater like us, it does wonders.”
It’s impossible to nail down definitively why these films are such strong draws, but some industry observers have theorized that the country’s polarized political situation is driving moviegoers to films about decent, generous, high-minded people. Theater owners say that on either side of the red state-blue state divide, audiences are proving to be colorblind, especially for “RBG.”
Randy Siefkin, a member of the board of the State Theater in Modesto, Calif., described his Central Valley city as a conservative area represented in Congress by a Republican, Jeff Denham. Still, “RBG” had done such solid business that “we’re bringing it back for an encore run,” Mr. Siefkin said.
Even in the Deep South, the tiny Supreme Court justice is box-office dynamite.
“Documentaries are usually death for us,” said Martin McCaffery, the director of the Capri Theater in Montgomery, Ala. “ ‘RBG’ is probably the second best we’ve ever had, after last year’s ‘I Am Not Your Negro.’ It is beating the hell out of ‘Roger & Me’ or ‘Hoop Dreams,’ and may catch up to ‘Winged Migration,’ ” he added, citing three of the more profitable nonfiction films of the last 30 years.
The Tallahassee Film Society has been showing the Ginsburg film for five weeks. “ ‘RBG’ is the best-selling, best-attended film we have shown in the 19 years of our existence,” said the organization’s founder, John Fraser.
The companies behind the films — Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media and CNN partnered on “RBG”; Focus Features is distributing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — seem loath to frame their success as a response to the current political climate.
“Audiences are seeking out inspirational programming, but I would say it’s been going on for quite some time,” David Linde, Participant’s chief executive, said. He pointed to another of the company’s films, “Wonder,” the 2017 family movie about a boy with facial birth defects, “which engaged people in a way similar to how ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ is engaging people, which is all about the concept of kindness, and kindness almost as a civic responsibility.”
He did add that “what’s going on out there” — like the news of migrant children being detained at the border — might be prompting some people to march into certain movie theaters.
“That’s got to be a factor,” Eamonn Bowles, the president of Magnolia, said. “But Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a beloved figure before Trump was in office, and what’s been great about this is that it’s a cross-generational thing — we see mothers, grandmothers, granddaughters arm-in-arm. All generations can agree on RBG as someone who deserves to be celebrated.”
And it’s predominantly women? “It is,” Mr. Bowles said. “It’s definitely skewing female. “Obviously, we’re doing very well generally, but the primary drivers are the female audience.”
The same point was made at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where a spokeswoman, Maureen Masters, said contributions to the nonprofit had spiked during the runs of “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
“We’ve certainly noticed more young women coming for ‘RBG,’ ” added Gina Duncan, BAM’s associate vice president, cinema. “In fact, Ginsburg saw her first Laurence Olivier film here at BAM. Pretty cool to think that another female Supreme Court justice could be in the ‘RBG’ audience now.”
James Wallace, the creative manager of Alamo Drafthouse cinemas in Dallas-Fort Worth, said that, for his theaters in Texas, “the real success story is ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ ”
He added: “We expected that to do well, but it’s doing even better than projected.”
Tom Brueggemann, an industry veteran and box-office editor for IndieWire, pointed out that the two 2018 documentaries have a way to go before they match Dinesh D’Souza’s right-wing polemics from 2016: His “Hillary’s America,” grossed more than $13 million, and “Obama’s America” earned $33 million.
But Dinesh D’Souza films, like those from Michael Moore (whose “Fahrenheit 9/11” from 2004 tops all other documentaries with $119 million domestically), are tailored to a niche audience and can accentuate the negative. “People are looking for positives, looking for heroes, for people they’re interested in hearing more about,” Mr. Brueggemann said. “And it’s a way of being with your community. One thing that makes watching movies in theaters different is that you’re watching it with other people.”
In the “purple” part of Florida, the Tampa Theater’s marketing and community affairs director, Jill Witecki, said “RGB” had “killed at our box office,” though it was “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” that was generating a lot more positive viewer feedback and expressions of good feeling.
Focus Features’ chairman, Peter Kujawski, said there might be a reason. “I think people maybe go into this movie because of sentimentality or even confirmation bias, at either end political spectrum,” Mr. Kujawski said. “Liberals will see all their ideals confirmed, while the other side can say, ‘Mister Rogers? The devout Christian? The lifelong Republican? Proof positive of my point of view.’ ”
“But no one,” he said, “and I mean no one, comes out of the movie talking about that. They say, ‘What a human being.’ People come out of the movie fundamentally moved. And changed.”
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