Amazing Grace continues hot streak; Hail Satan? opens strongly in limited release
Penguins may be flightless birds, but they soared in movie theaters this weekend. Disneynature's family-friendly documentary about the two-toned waterfowl opened with an impressive $2.3 million over the holiday frame, according to audience measurement firm comScore. Its cume stands at $3,234,350.
Actor Ed Helms narrates the film about Adélie penguins of Antarctica, with a focus on one member of the colony in particular. According to Disneynature, Penguins' protagonist is "Steve who joins millions of fellow males in the icy Antarctic spring on a quest to build a suitable nest, find a life partner and start a family. None of it comes easily for him, especially considering he's targeted by everything from killer whales to leopard seals, who unapologetically threaten his happily ever after."
The birds have proven box office dynamite in the past. March of the Penguins, released in 2005, remains one of the most popular documentaries ever, with an astonishing $77 million in ticket sales that year in North America alone.
Penguins, directed by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson, played on 1,815 screens -- very wide for a documentary release. Its weekend total works out to $1,258 per screen.
Amazing Grace, meanwhile, came in second place among documentaries over the weekend, continuing a robust run in theaters. The film that documents Aretha Franklin's recording of a live gospel album in 1972 made $603,302, comScore reported, upping its three-week total to $1,348,118.
The film was assembled from footage originally shot by director Sydney Pollack over two days at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for Pollack, his attempt to capture Aretha's mesmerizing performance ran afoul of audio synching issues. Producer Alan Elliott, an associate of Pollack's, stepped in at the director's behest decades later to rescue the priceless material and make a nonfiction narrative out of it. Spike Lee, an admirer of the finished work, has called it "one of the greatest concerts ever put to film."
Aretha Franklin enters the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles for the recording of her gospel album Amazing Grace. Video courtesy NEON
Third place at the doc box office over the weekend went to Apollo 11, Todd Douglas Miller's film about NASA's moon landing mission in 1969. After eight weeks of release it has made just under $8.5 million.
They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson's World War I documentary, took fourth place, nearing the $18 million mark in total earnings. It's the second most successful documentary released in 2018, behind only Won't You Be My Neighbor?, which made $22.8 million.
Coming in fifth place with an impressive per-screen average was Penny Lane's new documentary Hail Satan? It made an average of $8,332 at three locations, far and away the highest per-screen total of any documentary in theaters. The film poses questions about religious freedom by examining a group known as The Satanic Temple.
Combined, the top 10 documentaries in release made over $3 million over the Easter weekend.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.