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
|Bully||$3,495,043||20 Feet from Stardom||$4,934,900|
|The Gatekeepers||$2,415,727||Searching for Sugarman||$3,606,196|
|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|
|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|
|The Act of Killing||$486,919|
|The House I Live In||$210,752|
|The Invisible War||$71,968|
|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.
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...’”