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Reality Checks: Can ‘Amy’ Lead a Documentary Box Office Revival?

By Anthony Kaufman | IndiewireJuly 30, 2015 at 10:00AM

The acclaimed portrait of the late singer is the rare documentary to succeed in theaters. But it might not be the last one.

There may be more documentary films and more documentary outlets than ever before, but there are fewer documentaries breaking out in movie theaters.

Gone are the days when a single year would bring forth several nonfiction films with multi-million-dollars in ticket sales (see five years ago, for example, when such record-setters as “Babies,” “Waiting For Superman,” “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” “Catfish,” and “Inside Job” all grossed over $4 million.)

But this year, Asif Kapadia’s “Amy,” a portrait of late singer Amy Winehouse, is performing at the box office like it’s 2009. After four weeks in release, the movie has earned over $5.5 million and is still going strong in hundreds of theaters. Buoyed by excellent reviews (an 85 score on Metacritic and A- on Criticwire) along with a pop culture icon as its central subject, distributor A24 has been able to turn the film — its first documentary release — into a kind of unique cultural event.

“First and foremost, it’s a really well made movie,” said A24’s Heath Shapiro. “And I think that in today’s day and age, people tend to find good movies, but there are so many different platforms now that it can be more of a challenge to cut through theatrically.”

As “Amy” continues its stellar box-office run, likely to break into the top 25 docs of all time, will its rising tide lift other documentaries?

Indeed, for many consumers nowadays, they’re not finding good documentaries in theaters; they’re finding them on various VOD platforms (such as Netflix, iTunes, etc), which is what makes the theatrical success of “Amy” so stunning.

“I think the cumulative effect of the reviews really helped,” explained Shapiro, who couldn’t point to any one specific press break or review that helped the film crossover. “But then once people started seeing the movie in theaters,” he continued, “something happened on the social media side.”

Katy Perry, for example, tweeted to her 73.3 million followers, “Saw the AMY doc last night… Finally saw her as a human….” Likewise, Mary J. Blige told her 5.3 followers “Amy Winehouse’s artistry inspired so many. I encourage you to see her documentary @AmyTheMovie this wknd.” Other celebrities and “influencers” such as Russell Brand, Ellen Page, Cara Delevingne, Questlove and Sam Smith also touted the movie. Even the decidedly less-hip John Lithgow tweeted to his 141,000 fans, “Just saw a great film, though it broke my heart 1000 ways. Go to #Amy.”

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