Specialty titles "Won't You Be My Neighbor" and "RBG" are a hit with moviegoers this summer, but why?

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Fred Rogers never starred in a movie while he was alive. Maybe he should have. 

"Won't You Be My Neighbor," the documentary about the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" star and creator, has been a surprise hit at the box office this summer. The film has collected $15.8 million so far in North American receipts, enough to make it the 15th highest grossing documentary of all-time. 

Another unlikely box office star this summer is Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose "RBG" documentary has grossed $12.7 million since its May release. 

While neither film is setting the box office ablaze -- "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" collected more last weekend, in its fourth frame, than both films have in their entire run -- they're doing brisk business in the documentary world, where films often struggle to crack the $1 million barrier. 

And both films are showing that in a world torn apart by "fake news," people are finding comfort and solace in stories based in truth.

They're also making stars of elderly, virtuous figures, a rarity in youth-obsessed Hollywood. Rogers, who died in 2003 at age 74, always had a grandfatherly way about him, even though he started his show when he was in his 30s. (It was probably the sweaters.) Ginsburg, meanwhile, is 85, just five years younger than Rogers would be if he were alive today.

It's easy to link the success of "RBG" to current news events: the Supreme Court has been and will continue to be a hot topic due to the transition at our nation's highest court, and Donald Trump's recent Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh will keep it in the news.

But in a larger sense, Rogers and Ginsburg are strong, heroic, real-life figures, traits that are in short supply with today's leaders, and people are flocking to see the stories of their lives. 

Documentary hits are usually of the musical ("Justin Bieber: Never Say Never"), political ("Fahrenheit 9/11") or nature ("March of the Penguins") variety; all of the films occupying the spaces above "Won't You Be My Neighbor" on the all-time list fit one of those descriptions.

And there are more political docs in the pipeline: one way or another, Dinesh D'Souza will make waves next month when his "Death of a Nation" opens, as will Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 11/9" doc when it opens in September. (Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the highest grossing documentary of all-time, and is the only doc to ever cross the $100 million mark.)

But "Neighbor" and "RBG" aren't the only docs turning heads this year. "Three Identical Strangers," which tells the unbelievable story of triplets separated at birth, opened to strong business last weekend, and the story that inspired it has just been greenlit to be turned into a feature film.

However, not every high profile doc has been soaring in the specialty film world: Wim Wenders' "Pope Francis: A Man of His Word," failed to collect $2 million, and the Whitney Houston documentary "Whitney" has grossed just $2.3 million and is struggling to find an audience. 

Others -- including recent docs on Garry Shandling, Robin Williams, Andre the Giant and Rachel Dolezal -- have bypassed theaters altogether, finding homes on HBO and Netflix, where the business model is radically different. 

But they add to what has been, and what will continue to be, a strong year for documentaries. As real life more and more is resembling a movie -- and a bad one at that -- movies about real life are finding a larger audience. Go figure.  

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama 

 

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