The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences certainly isn’t short on documentarians. Atop its existing 400 or so documentary branch members, the Academy in July invited almost 100 additional doc-makers to join. Despite some internal concern that a few invitees might need help with the dues, now $450 a year, it seems safe to assume that branch membership is up about 20 percent from 2018.
And there are plenty of documentary features in the current Oscar mix. As of September, the Academy had posted 92 of them to its members-only streaming site, with the promise of another batch soon.
But missing, so far, are the sort of highly visible, popular documentaries that had made a considerable splash in theaters by this time last year.
By mid-October of 2018, theater-goers had already conferred hit status—as documentaries go—on Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, RBG, Three Identical Strangers, and Free Solo (the eventual Oscar winner).
This year, however, the best-performing theatrical documentary to date has been Apollo 11. Released by Neon in March, it has had about $9 million in ticket sales–25 percent lower than the take for Three Identical Strangers, which in turn was outperformed by the other three films mentioned above. In terms of ticket sales, 2019 contenders, like Pavarotti and Biggest Little Farm, aren’t even close.
This doesn’t mean the year is a bust for documentaries, even as the documentary branch finally overcomes its step-child status. (Documentary features weren’t established as a separate Oscar category until 1943; for years, there were only two or three nominees, if any, and the branch, then with a single governor, was only created in 2001.)
A quick glance at that members-only streaming roster already shows something for almost everyone. For the environmentally conscious, there’s Sea Of Shadows, about whale extinction. Trump-haters can revel in Where’s My Roy Cohn?. Music-lovers have Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice and the aforementioned Pavarotti, among others. Journalism junkies have Mike Wallace Is Here. Political paranoiacs won’t miss The Great Hack.
But the battle among those films and others is occurring more or less out of sight. Streaming services like Netflix are stingy with numbers, so the public and even filmmakers often don’t know whether their prize contenders are reaching the millions. At the same time, the Academy’s move toward an internal streaming mechanism—which eases delivery of films to its large and growing membership—tends to muffle the buzz that once attended seasonal screenings, or even the delivery of boxed screeners.
“Of course, we encourage members to see as many documentaries as possible in theaters, at screenings or at film festivals,” the Academy cautioned with its first posting of 23 documentary features in June.
But it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. The audience—and members—appear to be watching at home, or at work, or while walking down the street, on ever-smaller screens, and probably within ever-tighter interest groups.
That doesn’t get people talking about the movies. And it certainly doesn’t sell tickets.