How two documentaries became summer box office hits

'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' and 'RBG' made unlikely box office stars of their subjects. The two documentaries serve as reminders to be kind and helpful – a message that is missing from the news, those behind the film said.  

Jim Judkis/Focus Features/AP
Fred Rogers sits on the set of "Mister Roger's Neighborhood" in a scene from the film, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

Escapism is usually the domain of big-budget spectacles, but a pair of blockbuster documentaries has caught on at the summer box office partly because they're a respite from today's headlines.

The Fred Rogers documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor" and the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg portrait "RBG" have each played to some of the season's most packed theaters. In eight weeks, "RBG" has made $10.9 million, a mammoth sum for any documentary. Morgan Neville's "Won't You Be My Neighbor" has grossed $4.1 million in three weeks, including $1.9 million last weekend at 348 theaters.

Both movies have cracked the top 10 movies at the box office, ranking an 85-year-old justice and a deceased Presbyterian minister in multiplexes alongside Spandexed superheroes and supernatural thrillers. Documentaries, often sober counter-programming for the summer months, are instead supplying the movie season's most potent wellspring of feel-good inspiration – particularly to liberal moviegoers.

"It's an escape from what they're reading every day in the newspapers or online. These are both messages of positivity and how people's good character can triumph over horrible situations," said Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which partnered with Participant Media and CNN to distribute "RBG."

"There's a huge swath of our country that's horribly dissatisfied," added Mr. Bowles. "RBG and Fred Rogers, their sensibilities lie in helping other people. Our current administration seems to want to basically hurt people who are in need and not see past the greater humanity involved."

Mr. Rogers and Ms. Ginsburg both broke through in the late '60s and early '70s. "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" made its national debut in 1968. Ginsburg rose to prominence four years later when she co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU. Both were modest, soft-spoken people driven by a sense of empathy and a belief in community.

"Fred was telling 2-to-6-year-olds how to be people and how to treat other people. And it feels like we all need to be sat down and be taught that lesson again," said Ms. Neville. "He tried to teach us how to behave in a community and a society together, and the value of civility and the value of honoring this relationship with each other. And we live in times that don't honor that at all."

Both films arrive at an especially fraught moment in American politics. On Tuesday, Ginsburg joined with Sonia Sotomayor in authoring a scathing dissent to the court's 5-4 ruling in favor of President Trump's travel ban for seven Muslim-majority nations. Her reputation for tenacity was only enhanced Wednesday when her fellow Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, four years her junior, announced his retirement.

"We'll run all summer," said Bowles of "RBG."

It's the 17-year-old indie distributor's highest grossing release ever. (Second place for Magnolia belongs to the 2017 James Baldwin doc "I Am Not Your Negro," another unexpected hit that may have benefited from a "Trump-effect" at the box office.)

Neville wanted to make "Won't You Be My Neighbor" because he felt Rogers's voice was missing from American culture. In 2015, he made its opposite: "Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal." It depicted the fiery televised debates of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley as the birth of today's combative TV news.

"Won't You Be My Neighbor" features Rogers's powerful gestures on behalf of equality and his passionate advocacy for public television. But the documentary-like its lifelong Republican subject – seeks to avoid politics and instead focus on Rogers's humanist, compassionate lessons.

"People tried to politicize Fred many times and he always resisted. He never wanted to give a child or a child's parents an excuse not to watch the show. And I kind of want to honor that," said Neville. "I'm trying to as much as one can in this day and age to find things we can agree upon."

That has been especially challenging of late. As Neville's film hit theaters, outraged swelled over the Trump administration's policy of separating immigrant children from parents who cross illegally into the United States. A federal judge in California on Tuesday issued a nationwide injunction temporarily stopping the policy.

"Fred would have been heartbroken over what was happening with children being divided from their families," said Neville. "Fred always thought first and foremost about the child and child's experience and understanding how vulnerable children are."

What has given Neville hope is the overwhelming response to "Won't You Be My Neighbor." Some theaters have held charity drives alongside screenings. Tales of moviegoers overcome with emotion have been rampant. "Friggin' face faucet, dude," comedian-actor Kumail Nanjiani said on Twitter.

"At a time when there isn't a lot of optimism about our communal bonds, this film shows me that people care about these things," said Neville. "It's this idea that kindness is not quaint and naive and old-fashioned but that kindness is essential to going forward. And I think a lot of people feel that way."

It's happened, fittingly, in part because of the communal experience of moviegoing, something that wouldn't have been possible had both documentaries headed straight to Netflix. Bowles said the backbone of the audience for "RBG" has been "mothers, daughters, and grandmothers."

"People are looking around and they're saying: We want shared experiences," said David Linde, chief executive of Participant. "And these are real films directed by filmmakers who intended them to be seen in the movie theater. I'm not surprised at all people are flocking to see them in theaters."

Participant Media, which was behind films like "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Spotlight," blends moviemaking with a social mission. It helped produce arguably the first Hollywood film tailored to the Trump era – Steven Spielberg's fast-tracked ode to journalism, "The Post" – and a very Mr. Rogers-like kids' drama about kindness, the box-office hit "Wonder."

"It's not spinach," Mr. Linde said of "RBG." ''It's inspiration."

Befitting a true summer movie star, there's even an effort underway to get Ginsburg her own action figure. A Kickstarter campaign sought $15,000 to make it a reality. So far it's received more than $360,000.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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