Sun. Sep 27th, 2020

2019 Oscars: With RBG, Mr. Rogers and Whitney Houston, box office and popularity are shaping the Documentary Feature Oscar race

(From top left) RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Three Identical Strangers, Whitney all seem like Documentary Feature locks but will popularity help or hurt their chances?

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We may only be halfway through the year but we’ve already got a handful of high-profile Documentary Feature Oscar contenders and, in difference from normal years, they’re also box office hits.

Both RBG, about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, about famed children’s television personality Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) have enjoyed boffo box office, by doc standards, and are still both playing strong. As of this weekend RBG has earned $11.5M and is Magnolia Pictures’ highest grossing film and Won’t You Be Neighbor? from Focus Features spent its second week in the top 10 and is at $7.5M.

The documentary branch of the Academy has always been eclectic in their choices, to say the least. They have often, seemingly quite intentionally, overlooked some of the most popular and critically acclaimed documentaries of the year, much to the chagrin of voters and audiences alike. Just last season the National Geographic doc Jane, about primatology scientist Jane Goodall, was on track to an easy Oscar nomination with over 15 critics wins for Best Documentary (the most of any other film last year) as well as scoring with the industry guilds; it won the PGA, WGA plus both sound guilds and the editing guild awards. It made the Oscars shortlist, as expected, but then on nomination morning – snubbed. Four years ago they snubbed the critical hit Blackfish. Most famously though was 1994’s Hoop Dreams. Still regarded as one of the best films of all time, this overwhelming critical hit won the DGA, ACE Eddie, Cinema Eye, Spirit Award, the Peabody and Sundance doc prize and still got snubbed at the Oscars for Documentary Feature (it managed a very deserved and rare Film Editing nomination). The uproar against this snub was so loud (in large part going to film critic Roger Ebert, who chose the film as his #1 of that year) that it forced the doc branch to re-evaluate its selection and nominating process, a process that has been tweaked and altered over the last 20 years to lessen the grip of the intensely insular group. But, it hasn’t kept them from these shocking omissions.

It’s hard to figure out why the branch sometimes moves away from such highly regarded and high-profile fare. It’s not that they perceive celebrity as a lesser than subject; they nominated eventual winners Amy and 20 Feet From Stardom. Although the branch does often gravitate towards darker and more serious fare, they’re not providing evidence of a clear bias against well-known subjects.

This year, along with RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? there is also the new doc Three Identical Strangers (from Neon), which just opened in limited release in NYC to massive praise and a $30K per theater average. The second Whitney Houston doc in as many years, simply titled Whitney (review), is set to debut this week and could be a sizable hit, possibly even the next Amy. It’s coming off a successful premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May. On Her Shoulders, about a 23-year old Yazidi woman who survives genocide and sexual slavery from ISIS is presented by Amal Clooney I think could be a major player. It’s being distributed by Oscilloscope but no release date as of yet. Cannes brought us a wealth of contenders including The Eyes of Orson Welles, the animated Chris the Swiss, the Gaza City wedding film Samouni Road, the 8-hour epic Dead Souls and Focus Features’ other doc push, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, which opened in May. Berlin brought us the acclaimed film What Comes Around (review) and the Oscars have become quite fond of Middle Eastern cinema recently so it’s a contender.

But box office isn’t always a key factor, good or bad, in this race. Recently, Netflix has gotten into the game with demonstrable success. Ava DuVernay’s 13TH broke through for the streamer in 2017 and just this year they earned two nominations and a win (for Strong Island and Icarus, respectively). This year they have The Bleeding Edge, from two-time nominee Kirby Dick, the Quincy Jones bio Quincy from his daughter Rashida Jones, the Singaporean road movie Shirkers and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, from Morgan Neville who won the Oscar for 20 Feet From Stardom and also has the aforementioned presumed frontrunner Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Amazon and Hulu are also jumping into the mix and with HBO Documentary Films also a factor, we’ve got quite a stack of contenders building.

A big question is the recently announced new film from Oscar winner Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) called Fahrenheit 11/9, about the 2016 Presidential election. It’s hard to know what the bead on Moore will be from the doc branch now versus when he won for BfC. It’s coming out on September 21st (according to his website) but with no clear distributor or release pattern.

These are the top docs in contention right now, with my top five in bold. The second column is the film’s festival premiere and US distributor on parentheses where available.

American Chaos (Sony Pictures Classics)
Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché Cannes
Bisbee ’17 Sundance
The Bleeding Edge Tribeca (Netflix)
Chris the Swiss Cannes (animated)
Crime + Punishment (Hulu)
Dark Money (PBS)
Dead Souls Cannes
The Eyes of Orson Welles Cannes
Fahrenheit 11/9
Generation Wealth (Amazon)
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami Toronto (Kino Lorber)
The Great Buster (Cohen Media)
Jane Fonda in Five Acts Sundance (HBO Documentary Films)
King in the Wilderness (HBO Documentary Films)
McQueen Tribeca (Bleecker Street)
Minding the Gap (Hulu)
Of Fathers and Sons Sundance (Kino Lorber)
On Her Shoulders Sundance (Oscilloscope)
On the Road to France Cannes
The Oslo Diaries (HBO Documentary Films)
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word Cannes (Focus Features)
The Price of Everything (HBO Documentary Films)
Quincy (Netflix)
RBG Sundance (Magnolia)
Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind Sundance
Samouni Road Cannes
The Sentence (HBO Documentary Films)
Shirkers Sundance (Netflix)
The Silence of Others Berlin
The State Against Mandela and the Others Cannes
Studio 54 Sundance (A&E)
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Netflix)
This Is Home: A Refugee Story Sundance
Three Identical Strangers Sundance (Neon)
Transmilitary SXSW
What Comes Around Berlin
Whitney Cannes (Roadside Attractions/Miramax)
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Sundance (Focus Features)


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