All eyes are on the documentary Stories We Tell, released in two theaters in New York City this past weekend. The film, directed by actor-director Sarah Polley, centers on the mysteries surrounding her mother, who passed away when Polley was 11. Though the film examines her family’s past, calling it a family album would be like calling Citizen Kane a movie about sledding. Polley unravels the story of her mother, and her own parentage, like the layers of an onion. Yes, it’ll make you cry, as it’s masterful work, using interviews with family and recreations like we’ve rarely seen. Its greatest genius, though, is in the editing; audiences are carried through the film’s many twists and turns effortlessly.
And it’s not just me saying this. Stories We Tell has as much buzz as any documentary in the past few years. All weekend, my Twitter feed had a consistent deluge of supportive tweets, enjoining people to see it. The film was featured in weekend editions of newspapers and the critics almost universally raved. Rotten Tomatoes gave Stories We Tell a 94% approval rating.
Documentary critics, myself included, go on and on about this Golden Age of documentaries we live in, remarking how docs are taking cinematic storytelling to a whole new level. Stories We Tell is a prime example of that trend. The film distinguishes itself from documentary hits that can draw audiences who want to watch cute kids, fuzzy animals, Justin Bieber or other clever gimmicks. But the question remains: Will audiences show up?
This weekend was promising. Stories We Tell opened with $31,000 in two theaters. There was a bump of 172% from Friday to Saturday, largely considered an indication of strong word-of-mouth. To give you some sense of the numbers, a $10,000 per screen average for an independent film can be considered a success, while $20,000 is a true winner. Beating its chest, Roadside Attractions, the film’s distributor, pointed out to Indiewire that last year’s big hit, Searching for Sugar Man, opened with about $9,000 per screen.
But if they’re chasing Sugar Man, they might be in for a headache. Sugar Man is a different animal; it’s a feel-good doc with a very conventional beat. Stories We Tell is a cerebral art film. It makes you feel, but more than that, it makes you think. I don’t see it ever catching up with Sugar Man, which ended up with a $3.6 million.
That doesn’t mean it can’t be a box office success. Stories We Tell is expanding to 20 screens in seven markets around the country next weekend. It has all of the wind behind its sails. And then, if the stars are aligned, it should get a second wind from an Oscar race.
The little I know of Polley, I doubt she could care less about chasing the almighty dollar with this movie. She made a great film which will touch audiences in ways few docs (and even fewer home movies) could ever hope to.
My concern is how Stories We Tell might be an industry example of how even when everything goes right, you’re still not going to make a significant amount of money on a documentary. Alas, they probably already know that. It’s just those of us who want to see docs cross over to the mainstream—even the art house mainstream— that need to come back down to earth.