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'RBG' dukes it out with superhero blockbusters for box office relevance

'RBG' dukes it out with superhero blockbusters for box office relevance
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a scene from "RBG." (Magnolia Pictures via AP)

In a summer box office season dominated by superhero blockbusters, a small documentary about a diminutive crime fighter is doing big numbers in limited release. "RBG," a documentary chronicling Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's fascinating life and career, has made more than $6 million in four weeks despite not yet going wider than 415 theaters.

"Maybe Gloria Steinem was right when she told us that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the closest thing she knows to a superhero,” said Betsy West, co-director of the documentary. “She certainly has been that at the box office." The film, co-directed by West and Julie Cohen, spans the personal and the political by touching on subjects including the 5-foot-1-inch justice's fight for equal rights for women in the '70s to her life-shaping romance with her late husband, Marty Ginsburg.

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“RBG” premiered to acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival before opening May 4 from Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media. It grossed an impressive $560,000 in its opening weekend in just 34 locations, for a per-theater average of $16,471. The numbers have been rising ever since, and it just spent its second weekend in the box office top 10.

"While $6 million sounds like maybe the crafts services budget on a blockbuster, that's a lot of money for a documentary," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at the online measurement company ComScore, who calls the film “one of the greatest success stories of this summer.”

"We're in blockbuster mode right now, and for a film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be in the top 10 over Memorial [Day] weekend is pretty astonishing and really a testament to how politically aware people are right now," he added.

Indeed, the documentary provides an unabashedly joyful celebration of Ginsburg, who has become a pop culture icon in recent years, earning the moniker "The Notorious RBG" and being immortalized in countless memes.

"We're very happy that it's getting the response that it is, and I think there are many reasons," said West. She listed the Time's Up and #MeToo movements, Ginsburg's inspiring life story and the changing political times as major contributors to the film's success. And then there’s the 85-year-old justice’s intergenerational appeal.

"There seems to be something for everybody," said West. "For millennials who admire her as the Notorious RBG, to boomers who appreciate what she was up against and how she changed the world. And by young people who dress up like RBG and seem to really appreciate the idea of an elderly grandmother who is speaking truth to power."

As Times critic Kenneth Turan noted in his review: “I can't think of a dramatic film on-screen right now that will make you feel this good, and that’s a fact.”

West said that audiences have noted "how surprised they are by [Ginsburg’s] story.”

“I think they're impressed by her legal accomplishments,” she added. “I think they are surprised by her humor. And I think they're also surprised by her romance. It's a very romantic story, her relationship with Marty Ginsburg. She's had a very long and full life, and there are many aspects of it that interest people."

"It's not that common for a documentary to have a big, romantic angle to it, and I think that's really worked in our favor," added Cohen. "It's totally organic to the story … [it was] an unbelievable love story, and there was a male hero as well as there was a female hero in our story."

Cohen echoes West’s opinion that the Time's Up and #MeToo movements have also factored heavily in the film's success.

"Stories about women have particular appeal right now," Cohen said. "With some of the things that have come up recently, particularly the way that women's stories are told with the whole #MeToo and Time's Up movements, there's just an appetite for stories of strong women. And we've got one."

"Her story just fits so well in the zeitgeist," added Matt Cowal, head of marketing and publicity at Magnolia Pictures. "Women's rights issues are so much in the fore right now. To have this inspiring, very positive story about such an amazing role model as RBG is something to celebrate, and I think it's cathartic for people."

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In the spirit of women's empowerment, the filmmakers opted to have an all-female crew, starting with cinematographer Claudia Raschke. Carla Gutierrez was hired as an editor, Miriam Cutler as the composer. And that goes all the way up to Amy Entelis, the head of CNN Films, a producing partner on the project.

"We had a great time," West said of the crew. "Who knows if that's because we were all women, but it was an extremely happy production. We all seem to be on a very good wavelength."

"There seems to be this conventional wisdom that it's really hard to find women to fill top spots in films," Cohen added. "It wasn't that hard, actually. It was not hard at all."

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "RBG."
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "RBG." (Magnolia Pictures / Magnolia Pictures)

“RBG” has been years in the making. Both filmmakers had interviewed the justice in the past but began brainstorming ideas for a documentary centered on her when the “Notorious RBG” phenomenon took off in 2013. (Ginsburg earned the nickname, a play on the late hip-hop star Notorious B.I.G., after a series of notable dissenting opinions she wrote for the court, including in Shelby County vs. Holder, which struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.)

"We started talking about how we suspected that many of her fans didn't know her full story," said West. "It just seemed to us that someone should make a documentary about this woman, and it should be us."

They approached Ginsburg in 2015 and were told, "in effect, 'not yet,'" said West.

"We were initially disappointed, but then we realized that 'not yet' was not no," she added. They drafted a more detailed proposal a couple of months later, asking for permission to start interviewing people from her past, former clients, colleagues and friends.

"Again she wrote back quickly and said, 'Well, I wouldn't be able to talk to you for at least several years, but if you are going to be talking to people, you might want to consider...' and then she listed three other people that she thought would be interesting. At that moment, we thought, 'OK, she's opened the door a little bit and we're going to try to open it a little more,'" recalled West.

After the Sundance premiere, Magnolia quickly acquired the film and, hoping to capitalize on the buzz surrounding it, decided on an early May release — just in time for Mother's Day. ("It way, way outperformed most of the other films that day," Cowal noted.)

Magnolia has experience capitalizing on political headlines when releasing a doc. The studio also distributed the Oscar-nominated James Baldwin documentary "I Am Not Your Negro" in 2017, shortly after Donald Trump took office as president, and saw it become the last non-nature documentary to top $5 million at the U.S. box office. (That film’s $7.1-million gross is a number “RBG” should have no trouble exceeding soon, with the $8.4 million gross of the Oscar-winning Amy Winehouse profile “Amy” also within its sights.)

"When we look to acquire a documentary, we're looking for docs that have the potential for theatrical success," said Cowal. "Both of the films just kind of resonated very very well in the moment. Theatrical documentary hits are few and far between, so it's nice to know that it can still happen, and we're really proud of it."

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Whether or not the breakout performance of “RBG” will give a boost to other documentary releases this summer remains to be seen. A handful of personality-driven docs are scheduled to open in the coming weeks, including Focus Features’ Mr. Rogers exploration “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” which also premiered to acclaim at Sundance this year, on June 8, and Roadside Attractions’ Whitney Houston examination “Whitney,” which caused a stir at the Cannes Film Festival, on July 6.

"A great documentary can be illuminating, they can be moving, they can create a discussion, but generally speaking, they're not on a higher end of performance in terms of box office," said Dergarabedian. "To have a blockbuster documentary is like a unicorn. For it to be in the top 10 in the auspicious company of blockbusters, it's a true David and Goliath story."

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