Published January 14, 2015
Since the early days of cinema, documentaries have served as inquisitive, truth-seeking counterparts to make-believe drama.
The difference today is, people are actually watching them.
Long viewed as dusty reminders of dreary educational films people watched in school, documentaries have put on a fresh face and caught audiences' attention.
Encouraged by enthusiastic crowds at film festivals that showcase documentaries, distributors are snapping up nonfiction films and theaters are more inclined to book them. Primed by the surge in reality television, moviegoers are hungrier for stories of real people.
And directors have become more innovative and entertaining in their approach to nonfiction film.
"Documentary filmmakers have started to tell good stories, interesting stories, and have realized the word documentary should not be synonymous with castor oil," said Michael Moore, whose "Fahrenheit 9/11" (search) debuted as this weekend's top film with $23.9 million. It was the first time a documentary ever came in at No. 1.
The top prize winner at May's Cannes Film Festival, "Fahrenheit 9/11" set a record for highest-grossing documentary aside from concert films and movies released in huge-screen IMAX theaters. In just three days, "Fahrenheit 9/11" passed the $21.6 million total domestic gross of the previous record-holder, Moore's 2002 Academy Award-winning documentary "Bowling for Columbine."
Most documentaries used to play in just a handful of theaters, with only the occasional hit such as Moore's 1989 film "Roger & Me," which grossed $6.7 million, or 1994's "Hoop Dreams," (search) which took in $7.8 million.
Now documentaries have gone mainstream, with more than a dozen topping $1 million domestically in the last three years. Among them: "Winged Migration" (search) ($10.8 million), "Tupac: Resurrection" ($7.7 million) "Spellbound" (search) ($5.7 million), 2003 Oscar winner "The Fog of War" ($4.2 million) and the current hit "Super Size Me," (search) closing in on $10 million.
"Theater owners now are willing to look at documentaries as not a losing proposition but a winning one, or at least as something audiences are interested in seeing," said Sandra Ruch, executive director of the International Documentary Association.
Debuting Friday is "America's Heart & Soul," (search) director Louis Schwartzberg's gorgeously filmed collection of sketches of average Americans. A week later comes Stacy Peralta's surfing documentary "Riding Giants" (search) and the heavy-metal portrait "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster." (search)
"People no longer need to have Lana Turner and Clark Gable (search) in order for it to feel like entertainment," said Mark Urman, head of distribution for ThinkFilm, whose documentaries include "Spellbound" and the current release "The Story of the Weeping Camel," which explores a crisis among Mongolian camel herders.
"Storytelling is storytelling, and these filmmakers are storytellers, not just recorders," Urman said. "They're not just documenting. They're telling stories with all the tools at the disposal of other artists."
In late July, ThinkFilm will release "Festival Express," tracing a 1970 rock tour that featured Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead (search) and the Band. Other upcoming documentaries include "Tom Dowd & the Language of Music," about the legendary Atlantic Records recording engineer; "Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed," examining Shirley Chisholm's brassy campaign for the White House; and "Tarnation," Jonathan Caouette's personal chronicle of his mother's mental illness.
Subject matter and styles of documentary have broadened, giving fans more choice, and many filmmakers have spiced up the tone, injecting humor, animation, killer soundtracks and other adornments that lift the films beyond the old talking-head documentary.
"I think something else is happening, too. Documentaries are proving Hollywood wrong on something, which is that the public is smarter than they're giving them credit for," said Stacy Peralta, director of "Riding Giants," which became the first documentary ever to open the Sundance Film Festival last January.
"If you make a smart movie, they will come, and they will pay for it," said Peralta, who also made the 2002 hit skateboarding documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys." (search)
Film festivals have helped fire up interest in nonfiction films, devoting screens and separate competitions to documentaries. At Sundance, the biggest crowd-pleasers often are documentaries, including "Super Size Me" and "Dogtown and Z-Boys."
"It's the combination of the films themselves getting better and the audience wanting them because they sense there's a truth there that they're not going to find in mainstream film," said Sundance founder Robert Redford, who has produced and narrated documentaries.
Documentary filmmakers used to count themselves lucky if their films opened in one or two cities on a quiet weekend, when there were no Hollywood blockbusters around to gobble up the audience.
Schwartzberg's "America's Heart & Soul" opens in about 90 theaters just two days after "Spider-Man 2," (search) this summer's most anticipated movie, yet he's unfazed by the competition.
"I'm totally cool about competing with them," Schwartzberg said. "That's a good movie, a popcorn movie with all the big visuals. But I've got good visual thrills in my movie, too. And it's also got some nutritional value."