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Peter Jackson Delivers the First Big Documentary Hit of 2019

Technically, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ is a 2018 title, but the WWI documentary finally began a proper theatrical run this past weekend, with great success.
They Shal Not Grow Old
Warner Bros./Imperial War Museum
By  · Published on February 4th, 2019

Maybe last year’s box office boost for documentaries wasn’t a fluke. Following the theatrical successes of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?Free Solo, RBG, and Three Identical Strangers in 2018, we’ve got our first major nonfiction sensation of 2019 in Peter Jackson‘s They Shall Not Grow Old. And like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG, this one managed to place in the top 10 for the weekend. Its three-day total attendance, according to Box Office Mojo, was about 270,000 ($2.4 million). Not as well as was forecast but still really great.

Technically, They Shall Not Grow Old is also a 2018 title, but Friday was the start of its first true theatrical release. At the end of last year, the documentary, which presents restored and colorized World War I footage, screened in cinemas on single-day occasions via Fathom Events. On December 17th, the film ranked second place for the day’s ticket sales, behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, with an attendance of about 258,000 ($2.3 million). On December 27th, it was the fifth best seller with an attendance of about 374,009 ($3.4 million).

The latter was the best single-day performance of a documentary presented by Fathom ever, and so, of course, They Shall Not Grow Old received another screening date the following month. On January 21st, the film came in fourth place, this time above Into the Spider-Verse, selling about 292,000 tickets ($2.6 million). That one-day figure is higher than what has been sold in the first three days of its regular run, but it’s all still pretty outstanding for a nonfiction title.

And it was a pretty good weekend for documentaries on the big screen beyond They Shall Not Grow Old‘s wide release. Oscar nominee Free Solo, which was already one of the top-grossing docs of 2018, had another re-release on IMAX screens starting this past Friday, and the astonishing mountain-climbing focused film had a bump at the box office as a result, selling another 139,000 tickets ($1.4 million). And with those IMAX ticket prices, the movie’s gross shot up, too.

The previous weekend saw its own more surprising documentary hit with the boy band concert film BTS World Tour: Love Yourself in Seoul, but that was another single-date Fathom Events release. On Saturday, January 26th, the foreign film sold about 317,000 tickets ($2.9 million) in North America alone. So, that movie had a better weekend figure then than They Shall Not Grow Old did this weekend, but BTS only ranked in 13th place.

Because we’re only a month into the year, this is still the point when the biggest movie of the year is a title released at the end of last year. Glass might be the highest-grossing 2019 release, but Aquaman is the highest-grossing movie of 2019 at the moment. They Shall Not Grow Old is a 2018 title, but as of now, it’s the top-selling documentary of 2019 with an attendance of about 593,000 ($5.4 million), giving it a ranking of the 25th biggest movie overall for the moment. Free Solo is #28, and BTS is #33.

I’d like to think that our own review of They Shall Not Grow Old, which was quoted from in the film’s trailer, has something to do with the doc’s success. But maybe the fact that Peter Jackson directed the thing has more to do with it. Not that his name helped much with the sci-fi movie Mortal Engines, which he co-wrote produced. They Shall Not Grow Old has made almost as much money in the US and Canada as that failed $100 million spectacle.

We could be off to a great start for docs at the box office this year. No nonfiction releases were booming this early in 2018. Three of last year’s big box office players in documentary were Sundance premieres, remember, so they were just generating buzz as February began. RBG kicked things off eventually in May, followed over the next few months by the other top titles, with Free Solo not even premiering until Telluride on the last day of August.

Sadly, at the end of 2019, there won’t be a lot recalled about the performance of They Shall Not Grow Old considering it won’t be eligible for any awards (the film missed the submission cutoff for 2018 consideration and now isn’t qualified for 2019 since it played those Fathom dates in 2018). Not that a box office hit equates with Academy favor. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was the biggest doc hit of 2018 but failed to garner an Oscar nomination.

Hopefully, other docs will have joined Jackson’s in the box office rankings, whether that translates to awards or not. Looking at the docs that just debuted at Sundance, I’m not sure of any certain theatrical hits. Maybe Apollo 11, which was popular out in Park City, well-reviewed, and an award winner. That one has distribution with a March release. Perhaps, given the anticipation from Anton Yelchin fans, Love, Antosha could do well, if it finds a distributor. And Disney will obviously do fine with their latest anticipated nature doc, Penguins.

But then who saw it coming, the level of success had by those four 2018 hits? I’d love to see all of our most anticipated docs of this year (those actually hitting theaters) do just as well, but right now that’s difficult to predict. Still, while the overall movie attendance is way down right now compared to the last four years, docs being an exception and way up at the moment is promising for nonfiction fans at least.

Here are the weekend’s top 10 titles by the number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Glass – 1.1 million (9.8 million)
2. The Upside – 1 million (8.4 million)
3. Miss Bala – 0.8 million (0.8 million)
4. Aquaman – 0.54 million (35.8 million)
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – 0.5 million (19.4 million)
6. Green Book – 0.48 million (6.2 million)
7. The Kid Who Would Be King – 0.47 million (1.5 million)
8. A Dog’s Way Home – 0.4 million (4 million)
9. Escape Room – 0.32 million (5.8 million)
10. They Shall Not Grow Old – 0.27 million (1.2 million)

All non-forecast box office figures via Box Office Mojo.

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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.