Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

The Doc Days of Summer

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Searching for Sugarman

Searching for Sugarman. Of the top 20 box office-earning documentaries of all time, eight were released in the summer.

We’re in the dog days of summer, that sleepy period between early July and mid-August, named so, according to the Google minions, as the forty-day period divided by the conjunction of Sirius (the dog star) and the sun. (There’s your fun fact for the day.)

What applies to dogs happens to also work for docs, or at least that’s what Tribeca Film Institute’s Jason Guerrasio posed to me for a TFI podcast that went up this week.

That’s been an assumption that many of us share, but I did some due diligence for my talk with Jason and, indeed, I found there to be truth to the idea that many of the big docs (“big” defined as docs with box-office potential, early award buzz or strong pedigree) come out in summer. Of the top 20 box office-earning documentaries of all time, eight were released in the summer.

True, most of those summer releases are either glitzy concert films or docs by Michael Moore or his imitator Dinesh D’Souza and those films have totally different doc DNA than most. But then look at this sampling of summer releases: 20 Feet from Stardom, Cutie and the Boxer, The Act of Killing, Dirty Wars, Searching for Sugarman, The Cove, Man on Wire and An Inconvenient Truth.

If you combine those theatrical documentaries with the fact that POV and HBO both have their broadcast slates rolling out now, it certainly begins to feel like we’re in the thick of doc season. So, what gives?

I went to Twitter with that query and Hot Docs’ director of programming Charlotte Cook and True/False’s David Wilson said that it comes down to festival timing. Indeed, it’s the cyclical nature of film distribution; each season is dependent on the last. Sundance, in January, is the big premiere platform where films are introduced or bought. You then figure out your schedule from there. If you get your film to premiere at Toronto, in September, then the nine-month period to the following summer is a good run-up to a theatrical release.

But there’s more!

“It has a lot to do with getting them on the awards calendar in a timely manner,” Mark Urman, who runs Paladin Films, told me. “Those with Oscar prospects need to be unveiled now or soon if they are to crest in the late fall when the shortlist is announced. More importantly, they can also make for good counter programming at a time when most films are fluffy or special effects-laden. In a season that’s all about popcorn, discerning audiences crave the nourishment that a good documentary can provide.”

One of the biggest docs of 2014 — in terms of Oscar potential and box office — has to be Life Itself, the bio of Roger Ebert. It was released over the July 4th weekend and has made a healthy $650,000 plus what I imagine is a good chunk on video downloads. And if it doesn’t get on the Oscar shortlist I’ll eat Werner Herzog’s other shoe. And then there’s the first documented case of nation-abuse, D’Souza’s America, in which he perverts our national gullibility and deepest fears. It has made more than $13 million. Other big docs released so far this summer include Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger and The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.

And keep your eyes (and wallets) open for Rich Hill, which opened this weekend in New York City and will be rolling out across the country this month. It’s a documentary I’ve written about before that depicts the lives of disadvantaged youth in small town Missouri. The film is a beloved festival favorite – It won the Sundance Grand Jury prize earlier this year.

Of course, this summer thing is not an absolute rule. There are plenty of big docs that open outside of this time period. Disney’s big nature docs come out in April. The 2010 Oscar-winner, Inside Job, came out in October and the 2012 winner, Undefeated, came out in February. And with more docs getting day-and-date releases, in which they are being downloaded into homes at the same time that they are opening in theaters, it’s feeling a little like the Wild West out there. Still, there’s no denying that the summer months are a great time for fans to see some exceptional documentaries.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki