This has been a pretty amazing summer with RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor pulling in amazing box office totals for documentary films. Heck they’re doing fantastic for films that are about real people instead of superheroes or mutants. There was an audience willing to travel to a movie theater to get a deeper sense of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mister Rogers instead of just waiting for the films to eventually arrive on Netflix. Both films were audience pleasers at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina so it’s great they made the transition to regular theaters across the country. Now two more movies that were Full Frame audience favorites are arriving at theaters near you with the release of Three Identical Strangers and Generation Wealth.
Three Identical Strangers was playing in town so I went to see it again on the big screen. The Saturday afternoon screening was rather full. As the lights dimmed, I began to have a serious issue. They ran six trailers before the documentary and not a single trailer was about an upcoming documentary. Instead we were fed teasers to a batch of indie films that were mostly dramas. This is so wrong. You have a room full of people who are so eager to see a film about real people that they came to a theater and paid money. Instead of letting them know what documentaries are around the corner, we’re told about some crazy new Chris O’Dowd comedy. We get our first glimpse at how Margot Robbie is going to win her Oscar by messing up her hair to play an ugly Queen Elizabeth. Nothing on that screen hinted to the audience that if you like this documentary, you may enjoy this upcoming film about real people having a real experience and living with a real consequence. When I go to see a superhero film in the theater, a majority of the trailers are about the next batch of Marvel and DC superheroes. The same goes with horror film or even a kid’s animated flick. Why aren’t we being served?
Every time a documentary gets released in a theater, the filmmakers have to run around trying to find an audience as if they were the first documentary to ever play a theater. Theater owners and distributors have a chance to promote to an audience that has already proven they are somewhat interested in the genre. I’m not asking them to stick a trailer for Three Identical Strangers before Deadpool 2.
By the way, I love these articles popping up this summer saying “We’re in a Golden Age of Documentaries” as if it just happened this year. I can assure you that having attended Full Frame for years, this Golden Age has been going on for quite some time. The 21st Century has been a boom time for great documentaries. This is where you go for drama, action, thrillers, mysteries and even romance. You get all these elements in Three Identical Strangers. Do film distributors and exhibitionists want documentaries to be their little surprise instead of nurturing an audience that might regularly attend if they had a clue what was coming around the bend?
Seeing how documentaries rarely have major budgets for promotion, the trailers are essential for creating a buzz. This is the teaser time that counts most with an audience that can say, “I should see that on the big screen.” I hope Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, Errol Morris, Barbara Kopple and others in the documentary community can see the value in at least having two of the six trailers focus on the genre instead of the cinematic career of Chris O’Dowd. This is cinematic pay it forward.
Now that the trailers are over, you can should completely absorbed in Three Identical Strangers. You might be familiar with the story of three college age guys who discovered they were triplets adopted by three different families. Their story became a national phenomena as the reunited triplets were all over the news and talkshows including Phil Donahue in the 1980s. If you lived in Manhattan you might have seen them partying at a club or eventually ate at their Triplets restaurant. The movie covers the triplets time in the spotlight. But very quickly it also spots the shadowy elements of their lives including the basic question of why after six months together did the adoption agency split them up without ever once looking for a family that could handle them. There’s a lot of darkness in this film as truths leak out. Director Tim Wardle and his crew unpeel the onion on the screen in such a way that you feel shocked and disturbed at what was done to them (along with other kids who were involved) in the name of research. There is a conspiracy at the core of this film that seems like it should be a “remember these three guys” fluffy piece. I don’t want to give away anything else from the story. It is the kind of movie that needs to be seen on a big screen in a space where you can’t be distracted for 96 minutes.
Lauren Greenfield’s Queen of Versailles became a sensation in 2012 with it’s coverage of a family trying to build American’s most expensive house as their fortunes reversed. Now she’s back to give a second look at kids who grew up extremely rich in Generation Wealth. Greenfield is a photographer who often finds herself snapping away on the extremely wealthy including a guy with a gold plated toilet. The film has her on a quest to touch base with many of her former subjects. The first batch are kids who went to an elite high school in Los Angeles. How elite was it? When Greenfield published her original photos of the students, she didn’t use a single image of a kid named Kim Kardashian. She finds out that most of the children of the rich and famous are struggling to be successes on their own. The child of a member of REO Speedwagon still has a drum kit in his house, but won’t be going on a major American tour anytime soon. She also encounters a woman she covered that wanted to look better and flew to a foreign country for major plastic surgery for a major discount. Things didn’t quite pay off for her. There’s also a sad reunion with one of Charlie Sheen’s old girlfriends from the Tiger Blood era. Ultimately the film turns inward when Greenfield questions her own fame and fortune in relationship to her family. It’s a well thought out journey through the artist’s past. The film is educational since it teaches how you can catch salmonella while performing in an adult film.
I had a chance to talk with Greenfield after the screening at Full Frame:
Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.