It’s been well-documented that the theatrical popularity of the documentary is back. Four films from 2018 — RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Free Solo, and They Shall Not Grow Old** — now rank in the top 50 highest-grossing documentaries of all time (in the U.S.), while only four released in the prior three years make the list. But two of last year’s standouts stand out particularly due to how they were released.
While RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? received standard rollouts, Free Solo had a limited run in IMAX and They Shall Not Grow Old played in 3D for much of its time in theaters. In fact, the two even played in their respective formats at the same time in February 2019, merely a month before Apollo 11 debuted in IMAX. Amidst the boom of the documentary hid an aftershock: a swell of the spectacle documentary. And it may be where the medium is heading.
Non-fiction IMAX films date as far back as the 1970 travelogue Tiger Child. IMAX increased output of documentary shorts in the 1980s and, based on the “40 minutes make a feature” guide used by organizations such as AMPAS, dove into feature documentaries with Chronos in 1985.
But for most the company’s history, these documentaries have felt niche or difficult to separate from the IMAX brand, which has had its share of controversy in the past. And that’s for a few reasons — the first being that many of them are quite literally produced and/or distributed by IMAX, which is not the case for most films that show in IMAX. (It’s tough to break down the minutiae, part of the brand’s problem.)
Since, in those instances, IMAX is putting up its own money in production or distribution, and it won’t be able to distinguish such documentaries in the ocean of blockbusters that fill up IMAX screens, these films can feel as though they’re lost in the noise.
And the niche films can also have a tough time finding space: The IMAX nature documentaries, which are usually narrated by a celebrity, often simply visit science or educational institutions that have theaters, and the IMAX concert documentaries hold a narrow target audience. In fact, IMAX has examples of the first in theaters this spring; Superpower Dogs, narrated by Captain America himself, Chris Evans, is currently in rollout, and Penguins comes out in April. Is this the first you’re hearing of those films? If so, it’s hard to blame you.
Essentially, there’s rarely a sense of prestige (however problematic that term may be) within these films — and that’s where this current swell stands out.
The most prestigious mainstream documentaries in IMAX have come when esteemed directors enter the space, such as when Martin Scorsese made Shine a Light (2008), a part-concert film about the Rolling Stones, or when Terrence Malick specially cut an IMAX version of Voyage of Time (2016). And those films came eight years apart.
The void extends to 3D documentaries. (Many of the IMAX documentaries are also in 3D.) The most notable two that were solely 3D and not also in IMAX were both in 2011, with Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and TT3D: Closer to the Edge, a nominee for the British Independent Best Documentary award.
Free Solo, They Shall Not Grow Old, and Apollo 11 are all auteur-driven, awards-type documentaries. The first won both the Oscar and the BAFTA. The second came from Peter Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and was nominated for the BAFTA. And the third premiered at Sundance, winning the festival’s documentary editing award. (It wouldn’t be surprising to see it come next year’s Oscars.)
And they all warrant their large-format presentation. The sheer size of an IMAX screen elevates the tension in Free Solo intangibly, presenting Alex Honnold’s daring climb of El Capitan nearly life-size. It also has the same effect on the scope and awe in Apollo 11. And 3D offers an immersion that’s key to the visceral impact of war in They Shall Not Grow Old.
But the most telling detail that shows these films are treading new ground is how they came to these formats. Rather than being produced or distributed by IMAX, or filmed on IMAX cameras — which are difficult to access for documentary filmmakers — Free Solo and Apollo 11 were remastered to project in the format after the fact. This happened for Free Solo almost four months after its release and as it was on the verge of an Oscar nomination, and for Apollo 11 after buzz built from its Sundance premiere.
The spectacle wasn’t designed by IMAX itself and isn’t tied to an IMAX camera. It isn’t spectacle for the sake of education, or to simply capture nature or a concert on a large canvas without going further than that.
With Free Solo and Apollo 11 — and the same applies to They Shall Not Grow Old when it comes to 3D — the spectacle is inherent within the film and tied to the story at hand before IMAX becomes part of the equation. But once it does, it enhances that organic spectacle. In that sense, these three films are not just a part of the documentary resurgence. They’re a convergence of that boom and the large-format boom in general, which sees unlikely films like La La Land (2016), A Star Is Born (2018), and Us (2019) come to IMAX.
Despite IMAX and 3D documentaries having a long history, these films of the past few months represent a new crop, firsts of their kind. And as film in general has reacted to audiences’ intensifying need for a reason to get out to the theater partially through large formats, these films could be the beginning of the same happening for documentaries. With so much of it set on a 3,000-foot rock face, Free Solo was very theater-friendly — it was still playing on 16 screens last weekend, a month after its DVD release — while Three Identical Strangers and Minding the Gap, other lauded documentaries of 2018, surely got a chunk of their viewers from CNN and Hulu, respectively. So when it comes to documentaries like Free Solo, why not make it IMAX while we’re there?
**They Shall Not Grow Old was officially released in January 2019 but had special screenings in December 2018.