Evidence Shows It’s Best Not to Remake a Documentary

By  · Published on January 11th, 2017

Hollywood will try again with The Witness anyway.

One of the most successful documentaries of the past year is The Witness, a look back at the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, through a personal inquiry. Since opening last June, the film has grossed a modest $159k and continues to place on the weekend box office charts.

Currently, it’s on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, and last fall it was nominated for two Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. I’m happy to say it also places on my own list, published on another site, of the best documentaries of 2016.

Thanks to its true crime subject matter and its availability on Netflix, there’s both the appeal and access for millions of viewers, so even if its theatrical take isn’t the highest it could still go down as one of the most popular, or at least one of the most watched, documentaries of the year, as well.

So, there’s no need for a remake, right? Well, one has just been announced. Deadline reports that James D. Solomon, who made his directorial debut with The Witness, will now script a dramatic narrative version for a production team including David O. Russell and Christine Vachon.

There are two ways the movie could go. First is they do a literal remake and cast an actor to play Bill Genovese, the brother of Kitty whom the film follows as he investigates the truth of her murder. That would be redundant. The second idea is to make it just about the events 53 years ago.

Either way, there is a good chance it won’t be worth the trouble, because remakes of documentaries rarely do well. In the past two years we’ve seen a handful of them come and go without much public interest. Here is a simple look at how each performed at the box office:

The only one of these recent titles to have possibly profited is The Walk, which had the boost of 3D pricing. Loving might also manage to be safe in the end, especially if it garners some Oscar nominations. The rest are big disappointments financially.

And that’s par for the course. The Lords of Dogtown lost money. So did Party Monster, Battle of the Year, Devil’s Knot, and Rescue Dawn. The exceptions are biopics that don’t show much connection to their documentary counterparts, such as Milk and Monster, both decent hits and big Oscar winners. Others, like Grey Gardens and RKO 281, are HBO movies without box office numbers.

Beyond those films that were actually made and lost money, there’s all the money thrown away in acquiring or optioning the rights to documentaries that never even wind up in production. I’ve tracked such projects for a few years now at Nonfics, and the current list of titles still in development or killed completely is up to 46 projects.

Now that we’ve seen dismal numbers with an uptick in projects that do get made, I’d think Hollywood would cool down on announcing more. But in addition to The Witness, recent docs tapped for remakes include The Eagle Huntress, Meet the Patels, An Honest Liar, The Wolfpack, and the currently Oscar-shortlisted short The White Helmets.

The Witness specifically is going to be difficult to draw. A lot of true crime stories seem like good fodder for dramas, and there’s similarly been talk of Making a Murderer and the podcast Serial being adapted to narrative films, but fans of true crime like their original nonfiction formats. The series The Jinx got more notice than All Good Things, which came first, for instance.

But if Solomon, who previously scripted the historical crime film about the Lincoln assassination, The Conspirator, diverts enough from the format and focus of the doc and gives audiences a thrilling mystery-based drama, it could play like the recent crime fiction hit The Girl on the Train.

The Witness Exposes the Dangers of Sensationalized News

Odds are against The Witness being remade at all and worse for the rehash being a success, but anything could happen. The documentary itself starts out seeming like it’s not going to be good but just gets better and better as it goes. Perhaps there’s more good stuff to keep growing out from it.

For now, and probably forever, you can stick to checking out The Witness on Netflix.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.