Overall 2011 was a record year for UK documentaries, the BFI have said in their annual statistical yearbook published this week, with Senna breaking the box office record and a total of 68 documentaries released in the cinema.
Asif Kapadia’s fourth feature film Senna managed to triumph in the box office breaking the previous record set by Touching the Void in 2003 with total takings of £3.2 million. The film ranked number 19 in the top 20 UK films released last year (which had a combined gross of £376 million, up 23% from the year before) and is the only documentary on the list.
In their annual report which counts 250 pages, the BFI show that the 68 documentaries which were released in the UK last year made up 12.2% of all releases and brought in £11.1million, equalling 1% of the total box office revenue.
The best performing independent documentary was Richard de Aragues’ TT3D: Closer to the Edge, which grossed £1.26 million at the UK box office. The film therefore became the first documentary ever to appear in the list of the top 20 UK independent films, ranking 15th.
Ten years of documentaries in the UK
Figures showing the top 20 non-concert feature documentaries at the UK box office over the past ten years (2001–2011) show five new entries in the chart including Wim Wenders’ Pina and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The highest grossing non-music feature documentary of all times at the UK box office is still Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 which grossed £6.5 million in 2004. [Article continues below]
More screens for docs needed
What has been a disappointing fact to see, however, is that documentaries continued to have a relatively low average number of sites at widest point of release (WPR). Though the 2011 average of 35 is higher than 2010’s average of 10, this was mainly due to music and sports documentaries, both popular streamings within the genre. These kept the average up and give a falsely positive image of the industry while in fact many documentaries only get a one or two screen release.
Three very popular documentaries last year were Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Senna and Glee: The 3D Concert Movie. These had WPRs of 388, 358 and 335 respectively. Documentaries featuring popular music concerts, the BFI says, tend to achieve wider releases (and higher box office grosses) than other documentaries.
Other popular documentaries with a high WPR were sporting documentaries such as Senna, TT3D: Closer to the Edge (WPR of 125) and From the Ashes (WPR of 102).
The BFI also released the top 10 best selling documentary films on DVD and Blue-Ray in the past year (excluding concert docs). This list consists of:
2 TT3D: Closer to the Edge
3 Fire inBabylon
4 Exit Through the Gift Shop
5 March of the Penguins
6 Inside Job
10 Touching the Void
Note that these documentaries are not necessarily documentaries released in the past year but merely those who have seen the best sales figures during that period.
Audiences don’t automatically pick 3D
Another fact, which might indicate a possibility for documentary filmmakers if used well, are the good figures 3D documentaries have shown in the past year. Though the BFI says evidence suggests that audiences are becoming more discerning about the films they watch in 3D – choosing the format where the effect makes a real contribution to their viewing experience – it also says the use of 3D was particularly memorable in three feature documentaries. These are TT3D: Closer to the Edge and the foreign language documentaries Pina and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, all of which have performed remarkably well at the box office.