The door that “Searching for Sugar Man” helped open has led to a flood of documentaries about obscure artists receiving theatrical play, but none has worked as well at the box office as the rollout of “20 Feet From Stardom” by Radius and the Weinstein Co. (TWC).
Morgan Neville’s docu about background singers in the rock’n’roll era has built steadily across seven weeks and has topped $3 million in domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo. By Aug. 4, it’ll most likely top the $3.7 million that “Sugar Man,” last year’s Academy Award-winning documentary, has earned stateside.
As similar as the rise of “Stardom” is to that of “Sugar Man,” naturally there’s already discussion of what this could mean come awards season. While there are those who would argue against two pop music docus doing well in successive years, the changes in Oscar voting earlier this year make 2013 a year with minimal historical precedent.
The commercial success of “Stardom” should bode well for other documentarians with less-familiar household names as subjects. It was only a few years ago that splashy festival premieres for films on Pearl Jam, the making of Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and the life of Bob Marley were merely precursors to specialized theatrical screenings and DVD/digital releases.
Films like “Sugar Man” and “Stardom” don’t get far unless significant distributors pick them up, in this case Sony Pictures Classics and Radius-TWC, respectively. Already this year there have been theatrical releases of films about somewhat obscure acts (“Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me,” “A Band Called Death”), a veteran artist far removed from the spotlight (“Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm”) and the story of an unknown joining a famous group (“Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey”). Add to that Dave Grohl’s docu about recording studio Sound City and an upcoming film on another, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and it’s evident that music documentaries are being driven more by storytelling than celebrity.
Radius-TWC, which acquired “Stardom” at the Sundance Film Festival in January, deliberately positioned this as a must-see theatrical experience to be shared with a crowd. (A DVD release isn’t slated, and unlike Radius’ previous releases, there wasn’t a video-on-demand element.) Its rollout began in New York and Los Angeles, doubled its number of screens in its second week and took dramatic leaps in screen count in each successive week. A recent uptick in theaters included Knoxville, Tenn.; Richmond, Va.; Madison, Wis.; Omaha, Neb.; and San Luis Obispo, Calif. All the while, it has maintained a solid per-screen average at the box office, the crucial number that keeps theater owners invested in holding over a film for several weeks.
“Stardom” expanded to 131 screens in its fifth week and has had slight bumps in the three weeks since. “Sugar Man,” with a more gradual increase, played on 157 screens in its 12th week after peaking a week earlier at 38.
The success of “Sugar Man” ultimately led to its subject, overlooked Detroit singer/songwriter Rodriguez, being booked on a world tour. A tour featuring singers from “Stardom” — Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega and Darlene Love among them — has been bandied about for months. If that comes to fruition — or if these backup singers get their due in the same manner that Love has during the last several years — then its mission will be truly served. In that case, a trophy or two would just be icing.