Older adult moviegoers are driving a “documentary renaissance” that has made Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85, the heroine of the hit RBG, and the children's TV star Fred Rogers — the subject of the new Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — big draws at the box office.
The unexpected triumph of both documentaries is “stunning,” according to Tom Brueggemann, box office analyst for IndieWire. RBG was expected to overtake Super Size Me, the 2004 fast-food exposé, this week as the No. 25 theatrical documentary of all time, according to Neal Block, head of distribution at Magnolia Pictures, which released it in May. With $11 million in tickets sold (and getting more popular after two months in theaters), RBG is history’s 10th most successful documentary that isn’t a concert or nature film. The hit of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, RBG earned 26 times more than last year’s No. 1 Sundance doc, the Grateful Dead’s Long Strange Trip.
“Older adults are certainly a driving factor in the success of the documentary renaissance we’re seeing this summer,” says Jeff Bock, Exhibitor Relations senior box office analyst. Magnolia’s Block says, “We’re definitely getting a large crowd of [age] 49-plus women seeing RBG.”
“RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor do what all the best summer films do — provide an escape,” says Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst at comScore. “Both provide stories of inspirational historical figures that give us a glimpse into their personalities and points of view, and a refreshingly positive take on the human condition.”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — which IndieWire pundit Anne Thompson says has a good chance to win an Oscar for best documentary — has earned $7.6 million in less than a month, 17 years after Rogers hung up his cardigan for the last time and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ended its three-decade run on TV. “If you have a subject like Mr. Rogers that screams nostalgia for boomers and Gen Xers, you are truly golden at the box office," says former Hollywood Reporter film analyst Carl DiOrio. And movie writer Gary Susman says, “These two movies seem to be smart counterprogramming for mature viewers not interested in popcorn fare meant for kids and younger adults.” He notes that grownups also have driven the success of fiction films Book Club and Sicario: Day of the Soldado.