Revenue Sources
Section 3.4.
Home Tour Join! Contents Team News Catalog Search Comm

Making Money from a Documentary

Perhaps the most unique feature of the Artemis Project plan is the idea of making money from the entertainment value of space travel and lunar exploration. While much of this revenue will be generated by fictional drama based around the actual activities of the Artemis Project, nonfiction documentaries have always been intended to play a part in boosting the total return.

The 1994 film Hoop Dreams has shown that there continues to be an interest in documentaries on the big screen. But how much money can we expect to bring in from these nonfiction films? With a handful of statistics from a recent issue of the industry publication Variety and a little research, it's possible to get a pretty good picture of documentaries' money-making ability.

The news is definitely mixed. On the one hand, documentaries account for less than 1/3 of 1% of film revenue over the years. But films make a lot of money. Within that tiny fraction of total revenues, there is still room for considerable income.

One of the surprises is how much of a "layer cake" the results show. With amazing consistency, documentaries can be slotted into broad categories that have a direct relationship to their take.

Such quirky fare as Roger and Me, a highly self-referential film about attempts to interview the chairman of GM, pulled down $6.7 million over a decade ago. There are a number of such off the wall films in the $5-10 million dollar range.

The middle ranks of the documentary money makers are filled with films with an outdoor setting. Remember a man, a beach, and the search for the perfect wave? Endless Summer brought in $10 million at the box office, and has since made more on TV. It's also spurred a sequel.

More traditional nature documentaries have also done well. Before these shows became a staple of television, big budget nature shows were common on the big screen. The Vanishing Wilderness cleared $17 million, and is the champion of this division.

The next chunk of documentaries have something to do with space travel, but a lot more to do with quackery. In the wake of the best-selling book, a film version of Chariots of the Gods pulled down $25 million. Right on its heels was another film about the Bermuda Triangle. These films were released while the subject of these books were still "hot," and show how documentaries can be effective when played in combination with other media.

Though it only missed being a '70s' event by only a couple of months, Woodstock is still considered by many as the defining moment of '60s' culture. It's not surprising that the film version of this event did good business in theaters, bringing in $34 million. Inspired in part by this film's success, other documentaries on the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and other groups have brought in similar amounts.

To go much above this level, to reach the top of the charts, a documentary needs a gimmick. And the best gimmick of all for luring people into the theater is to give the viewer something that goes beyond the normal cinema experience. Just as 3D glasses bumped up the income for Creature from the Black Lagoon, and rigged seating brought audiences to The Tingler, gimmicks have helped documentaries break out of the pack.

The king of gimmick theater is the '50s' hit This Is Cinearama. The film was produced at a point when movies were first starting to be shown on television, and theater owners were perceiving TV as a threat to their existence. In response, they tried to show that TV was limited, presenting a tiny, black and white image that could never match movies. To play up the difference between the home and theater experience, this film was shot using special techniques and played back on oversized, extra-wide screens. Audiences found the first person footage of Cinearama exhilarating -- a fact not lost on the designers of modern interactive cinema and rides like Universal's Back to the Future. Even in theaters not equipped with the special screens, and in a time when the average ticket price was fifty cents, Cinearama raked in $41 million, making it the biggest grossing picture of the year, and arguably the most successful documentary ever shown in theaters.

So is that the limit? Adjusted for inflation, Cinearama's income would represent a sizable amount of money. But to find the real champ of documentary dollars, you need to turn to another gimmick -- IMAX.

For those that have never been to an IMAX theater, the experience is far different from that found at the local 12-plex. IMAX film is several times larger than normal film, and of higher resolution. It's projected by an extra bright bulb. It runs through the projector at a much higher speed. The result of all this is a much clearer, more detailed picture. The higher speed also helps to make motion more effective, and allows some shots that scream "fake" when done with normal movie gear.

In older IMAX theaters, the screen is 2-4x the usual theater screen, and slightly warped to preserve the perspective of the optics in the IMAX system. Newer IMAX theaters have screens as much as six stories tall that are warped around more than 180 degrees both vertically and horizontally. They are also equipped with 3D sound systems and speakers of tremendous power.

If you never made it to Kennedy for the launch of a shuttle, experiencing that launch through IMAX -- with the bass pounding your stomach and making your teeth vibrate -- is the next best thing.

It's not surprising that audiences have been flocking to IMAX ever since it's premiere 20 years ago. There are now 120 IMAX theaters in the United States. Many of them are associated with museums, science centers, or parks. While a few, like the screen at the Grand Canyon IMAX, play the same bill day after day, most screens rotate through the slowly growing selection of IMAX films, changing titles every few months.

The result gives IMAX films two important boosts in the monetary arena: audiences come just to see the process, and IMAX films stay around year after year. With this is mind, it's not surprising that the champion IMAX film is also the overall top documentary money maker.

To Fly, introduced 19 years ago, is only 27 minute long. But it's take is $83 million strong. Several IMAX films using footage from the shuttle are also in the upper ranks, earning over $50 million.

The strong performance of IMAX films in general and space-related films in particular, make a good argument for producing Artemis in this format. But things might be changing in IMAX-land. A new IMAX theater in New York is now screening the first drama scripted especially for this format. More IMAX fiction pieces are in production, and these theaters may soon be less tied to nonfiction material. Besides, to get the kind of audience we want, it may be that IMAX is too old. Artemis should keep a look out for emerging technologies that might be the next advance in film viewing.

And if all of these numbers look a bit low, keep in mind that these are strictly the box office numbers. Video and broadcast rights can easily raise the value of the documentaries over $100 million.

-- Author Unknown

Revenue Sources

Home Tour Join! Contents Team News Catalog Search Comm
ASI W9600609r1.1. Copyright © 2004 Artemis Society International, for the contributors. All rights reserved.
This web site contains many trade names and copyrighted articles and images. Refer to the copyright page for terms of use.
Maintained by ASI Web Team <>.
Submit update to this page. Maintained with WebSite Director. Updated Sat, Sep 11, 1999.