How commercial are impact films?

Analysis of the US box office (the strongest market for documentaries across the world) indicates that impact docs perform on a par with non-impact independent docs. Every year some of them take over $1 million. This is probably why every year distributors take an interest in a few of them.

The vast majority of great documentaries don’t reach these numbers though. Most don’t have a full theatrical release but go straight to non-theatrical, TV and online. There are many ways for films to reach the right audiences. Ping Pong - which followed a group of over-80s table tennis champions and challenged the expectation that the elderly would live sedentary lifestyles - never had a theatrical release, but it did manage to reach an important audience through DVD screenings in over 2,000 care homes.

The next two graphics demonstrate two things:

  • that impact films can be very commercially successful
  • but they don’t need to be huge moneymakers to have huge impact

Impact vs Non-Impact docs

Top 10 independents 2012-13 taken from Box Office Mojo

Impact Non-Impact
Bully $3,495,043 20 Feet from Stardom $4,934,900
The Gatekeepers $2,415,727 Searching for Sugarman $3,606,196
Blackfish $2,073,582 Samsara $2,672,413
Girl Rising $1,696,494 Jiro Dreams of Sushi $2,552,478
Chasing Ice $1,328,000 Queen of Versailles $2,401,999
Inequality for All $1,205,273 Stories We Tell $1,600,145
Burn $1,109,276 Marley $1,413,480
56 Up $701,278 Tim's Vermeer $1,249,000
Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry $534,100 Diana Vreeland $1,017,579
Act of Killing $484,221 First Position $1,014,071
Average $1,504,299 Average $2,255,226


Impact Award Finalists

Lifetime Theatrical Gross for Impact Award finalists taken from Box Office Mojo

Bully $3,495,043
Blackfish $2,073,582
The Act of Killing $486,919
The Interrupters $282,448
The House I Live In $210,752
American Promise $146,702
The Invisible War $71,968
Granito $43,942
Give up Tomorrow $0
No Fire Zone $0


Each of these Impact Award Finalists had an extraordinary impact, was deeply loved by fans and honoured by film industry peers and society leaders. But commercial success is fickle and filmmakers are advised to make robust plans and partnerships for getting their films into the world, whether or not lady luck strikes.

As this beautiful graphic from Chris Tosic reminds us - not everything beautiful and worthwhile will make money. Our mission is to find ways to make sure the best work can reach the right audience and be a sustainable practice for artist filmmakers.

Impact Films

This is not a new problem. The truth is it’s always been tough to get an independent film to market. Documentary filmmakers have always been at the vanguard - reinventing distribution models, determined to reach audiences no matter what the gatekeepers say.

US distributor New Day Films was formed 40 years ago because the women’s movement had arrived and a group of independent filmmakers couldn’t find distribution for their feminist films:

“We met at the 1971 Flaherty Seminar, where some of our films were programmed,” recalled founding member Amalie Rothschild. “I was in production with It Happens to Us. I'd been trying to get distribution for Woo Who? May Wilson. I'd take it to non-theatrical distribution companies and they'd say 'It's wonderful, dear, we really like it. But there's no audience...’”

Sound familiar?

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading


Made byDoc Society Made possible by: Ford Foundation - Just Film Bertha Foundation Sundance Institute Knight Foundation