Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

How do you make a hit documentary?

Make it about cars. That’s how. Thank you and good night. The market for documentaries has fluctuated wildly over the last decade. All the computer screens went green in 2004 when Michael Moore’s entertaining, wildly unreliable Fahrenheit 9/11 took the …

Thu, Jun 9, 2011, 22:18

   
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Make it about cars. That’s how. Thank you and good night.

The market for documentaries has fluctuated wildly over the last decade. All the computer screens went green in 2004 when Michael Moore’s entertaining, wildly unreliable Fahrenheit 9/11 took the Palme d’Or, the Academy Award and — most importantly — over $200 million at the world’s box offices. Jeez! People really did hate George Bush. Didn’t they?

In the aftermath, films such as  Super Size Me, March of the Penguins, and An Inconvenient Truth all took serious coin and it was decided that the multiplex had, against all odds, become a welcoming place for factual cinema. The supposed boom didn’t last. In the years following the release of An Inconvenient Truth, no documentary managed to become anything like a sizable hit.

Over the last few months, however, two films have shown reasonable resilience at the combined British and Irish box office. Asif Kapadia’s superb Senna, biopic of the Brazilian motor racing driver, opened last week to comparatively furious enthusiasm. Playing in 67 screens in the two countries, the picture took £375,000 at a massive average of £5,600 per screen. Meanwhile TT3D: Closer to the Edge, a dynamic 3-D study of the Isle of Man TT races, continues to play to almost equally packed houses.

Aside from noting the continuing drawing power of motor sports, this information reminds us how wise it is to manage resources and expectations when marketing fringe entertainments. During the over-inflated boom period for factual films, two many distributors propelled too many documentaries into something like a wide release. TT-3D and Senna were both released on a reasonably modest number of screens. Punters sought them out and the cinemas became agreeably stuffed.

Alas, it seems that — the freak one-off that is Michael Moore aside — documentaries are never going to draw droves of punters towards the cinemas. It’s a peculiar thing. Somewhere along the line it was decided that documentaries belong on the telly. And yet. Consider the healthy business achieved in these territories by His & Hers. Anything is still possible.