Today, the immersive, social and technical advantages of theatrical viewing are clearly preferable for a number of reasons. Going to a movie in a theater does makes a big difference, and not just for the obvious elements of picture quality, audio, and no distractions of home viewing. Merely the social aspect of de-isolating oneself and getting out of the house is critical to the species! The act of sharing impressions and viewpoints are vital to a healthy society. Plus, some imagery and sound design are far too layered for their full complexity to register on a small screen.
At their best, movies are also an extremely powerful medium to affect change, and that’s as true today as it has been in the past. Today’s top of mind political and cultural concerns have boosted the public’s irrepressible appetite for nonfiction truths, and socially conscious films, causing the documentary industry to experience its greatest boom. Plus, these types of films exponentially increase their effectiveness when seen in a theater, and so that they may challenge or reinforce opinions and encourage group discussion. Many movies of this sort also have missions to bring their work to groups in theaters with ongoing aggressive grassroots outreach.
It has also been a banner year with movie studios acquiring numerous independent features for multiple seven-figure deals. It’s not yet a market that’s at a fever pitch; however, distributors are making inspired bets at festivals all over the world to bring us the best stranger than fiction stories.
Select documentaries still have a significant place in movie theaters. A greater number of non-fiction films have become real spectacles with featuring big music sagas as well as true, unfolding suspense stories such as “The Cove”. Fox Searchlight bet on its “Step” release this summer, and recent releases of “I Am Not Your Negro” – Magnolia Pictures, and “Kedi”- Oscilloscope, indicate theatrical distribution is still very much alive for non-fiction features.
Many documentary filmmakers and backers are also resistant to the recent trends. Whether it’s auteurs who insist their work should be seen in a movie theater or socially-minded partners who desire a vital grassroots screening and outreach campaign, there will always be documentaries that will forgo the all-rights deals in favor of multiple theatrical screening partners.
The current nonfiction marketplace is where the independent scripted film was in the mid-2000s, with breakout Oscar winners like “Crash”, “Brokeback Mountain”, and “Capote”. There is a real sense of excitement about the documentary future due to exceptional storytelling, and the well-earned prestige.
There could be a correction based on the amount of high-profile Hollywood players entering the space — from producers, such as Jake Gyllenhaal who produced the Tribeca entry “Hondros”, as well as RatPac’s Brett Ratner and Blumhouse’s Jason Blum.
There will always be a finite number of documentaries that are going to be of awards-level quality. However, as more filmmakers generate more documentaries, that limited number increases. Studio acquisition prices will come down because of the laws of supply and demand. It’s a practical economic reality.
Documentaries have also effectively been reflecting culture by pushing for further and better inclusion of women in film which has been ongoing for a few years. Docs now also intentionally strive to overlap gender, race, sexuality and class and their effects on bias and discrimination. This has been an enormous awakening!
Short-form documentaries also have emerged as a leading genre for indie creators and professionals. But one question remains, in this sea of content how will companies and independent creators compete for recognition and success for their documentaries?
Here is a list of some of the best documentaries so far
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” takes us into the nostalgia of our favorite Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood resident: Fred Rogers himself.
“The Gospel According to Andre” – Kate Novack’s documentary covers Andre Leon Talley’s childhood spent in a segregated South to his ascension, and features interviews with Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Ford, Valentino, and others.
“Whitney” – Unlike Showtime’s subtitled “Can I Be Me” doc, Kevin Macdonald’s drill down to her-brief existence and the only doc approved by her estate.
“RBG” – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg rise to pop culture icon, which directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen and want you to know about every warrior effort blazing new paths along the way
“Eating Animals” – Based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, this one’s the game changer in a saturated field of food docs.
“Dark Money” -In an attempt to follow, define, and expose “dark money,” or untraceable anonymous political funds, director Kimberly Reed and reporter John Adams deliver a compelling thriller about how American elections are smeared, bought, and sold.
“John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” – No need to be a fan of controversial tennis legend John McEnroe to enjoy Julien Faraut’s wonderful sports doc and how it all intersects with life.
“Fahrenheit 11/9” – Left-wing documentary filmmaker Michael Moore focuses on the chaos of the 2016 presidential election with a sequel to his mega-grossing Fahrenheit 9/11.