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The 'Blockbuster' Documentary Subgenre

We are in a golden age of documentaries — let’s look at how the nature documentary contributed to the commercial success of the genre.

Several sub-genres have helped establish the golden age commercially, both political docs and concert films have been particularly consistent formulas to rely upon, however, no sub-genre has been more imperative than the nature documentary. The nature documentary, also referred to as the wildlife, environmental or conservationist is now one of most recognised subgenres of film, after all, animals were among the first subjects for filmmakers — cute pets, dead trophies and exotic creatures. These early wildlife filmmakers were crucial in developing film and documentary practices that are familiar to contemporary audiences. As documentary grew in commercial importance, so did the animal subjects, who cost less than actors. The ‘sub-genre’ has seemingly been the most successful in mirroring the behaviour and success of traditional popular film; of nearly 300 documentaries that were released from 2002 through 2006 in the USA, only eight were wildlife documentaries, however, their combined gross of $163.1 million was a significant 26 per cent of the $631 million total gross, revealing the financial gravitas and importance of the cinematic wildlife genre (Thomson, 2007).

Many ‘blockbusters’ documentaries become problematic as they often become fabricated to appeal to a mass audience. This problem is not that they blur the lines of fiction and reality but rather that they are not honest when they do so.

A unique case study presents itself during the mid-2000s, in which Hollywood produced several films focused around penguins, either seeing the animal in a protagonist role or as a supporting character; Madagascar (2005), March of the Penguins (2005), Happy Feet (2006) and Surfs Up (2007). Interestingly, in a seemingly rare occurrence a documentary was competitive with its ‘fictional’ blockbuster counterparts — March made on a budget of $8 million, grossed over 10 times that amount at the worldwide box office and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2006, the status of the film to this day is highlighted through its positioning as the second highest-grossing documentary of all-time with a lifetime gross of $127 million. The success was unprecedented and challenged the assumption that such films were only profitable on the small screen or in specialized venues, such as museums (Palmer, 2010). March would serve as a catalyst in a new wave of nature documentaries, becoming so prominent, it too would be redefined as a new sub-genre, Thomson (2007) somewhat unfavourably labels it ‘fuzzumentary’, a sub-genre in which creatures of the wild are turned into almost-human characters on the big screen”.

The fuzzumentary’ style of filmmaking would become one of the leading theories as to why the film was so successful, the poster advertising the American cinematic release of March features the tagline “In the harshest place on earth love finds a way”; human beings may be absent, but animals play human roles; protective mothers, valiant fathers, rambunctious children and adoring families. It was this anthropomorphic construction that caused audiences to feel a deep emotional connection with the characters and made the story of the penguins so relatable globally (Thomson 2007).

The cuddly protagonists of March embark on a journey fitting of a Hollywood blockbuster, dream factory-esque (Powdermaker, 1950) in its depiction of courage in the face of unbelievable odds. The anthropomorphism heightened through a musical score which serves only to emphasize the story elements in which we can relate; a light, childlike melody whistles over images of a baby penguins’ first steps and a sexy and hypnotic ballad gently plays over a mating ritual. The American release of the film would also feature Morgan Freeman as the ‘voice of God’ (a conventional technique of documentary), carefully narrating the story of the penguins through an epic survival saga (Adcroft, 2010). The techniques used in March didn’t present themselves as being completely revolutionary but instead offered a seemingly perfected (particularly to garner revenue) form of anthropomorphic nature filmmaking. This new defining point for ‘fuzzumentary’ filmmaking was further supported by National Geographic president Adam Leipzig, who was responsible for March getting a North American distribution; he chose to term the reinvented genre ‘wildlife adventure’ as opposed to simply wildlife or nature documentary.

The leading status of the genre leaves it open to more criticism, March proved to be a ‘breeding ground’ of social disagreement when it comes to displaced conflicts of human interest; a conflict over control of the cultural authority to interpret animal images (Wexler, 2007). Bruce Eric Kaplan produced a cartoon for The New Yorker in 2005 (Figure 4D­). The doodle plays with the social discourse that occurred after March of the Penguins release. The cartoon (anthropomorphised in its own right) explores the idea of animal images being used in displaced conflicts of human interest. March led to questioning of the films scientific integrity, in regards to the humanistic portrayal of animal biology. Who controls images of animals? Thomson (2007) comments on this in regards to a successor of March; “Forget the fact that some of these critters, particularly the polar bears and walruses in Arctic Tale (2007), opening Friday, might rip us apart if given half a chance. C’mon, they’re so adorable! And when will the stuffed toy versions hit the shelves?”. The fuzzumentary genre that spawned as a subdivision of the nature documentary superficially acted as a way of making every animal relatable in every ‘positive’ humanistic connotation of the word, for penguins this might be somewhat passable but when it comes to the portrayal of elite predators, such as the polar bear, this comes more problematic. After all, we could quite as easily portray the polar bear as a ruthless killer, completely inept of any characteristic recognisable to audiences (humans).

The larger debate around the use of animal images becomes increasingly impassioned when it relates to audiences’ interpretation of political, social and religious undertones. Conservative and religious Americans were prominently fond of March, film critic Michael Medved was quoted by the New York Times calling it “the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child-rearing” (The New York Times, 2005). Likewise, beyond the perceivable understanding of penguins conforming to traditional Conservative values, Andrew Coffin (World Magazine) commented on the film in a widely circulated Christian publication “That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat — and, some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design,” he wrote. “It’s sad that the acknowledgement of a creator is absent in the examination of such strange and wonderful animals. But it’s also a gap easily filled by family discussion after the film”. These interpretations could presumably only be supported by the screenwriters’ decision not to pursue climate change; it becomes ever clearer to see how these arguments made by conservatives and religious audiences feel valid when accounting for their human interests and beliefs, additionally this reveals an issue for wildlife filmmakers outside of just the interpretations of conservatives and rather society as a whole meaning the label blue-chip in regards to wildlife filmmaking becomes far less justifiable.

The discourse that surrounded the film was polarising enough that the filmmakers themselves would comment on it, maintaining that offering of strong conservative values or intelligent design was not the intention of the project, instead they highlighted the fact they had created the film in association with organisations such as the French Polar Institute and National Geographic, further underlining the scientific integrity of the film (Wexler, 2007, p.276). Fictional film, of course, invites social discussion, but the desire for definitive human truth and factual storytelling from a documentary further establishes the way in which audiences view documentaries vastly differently to fictional film. Wexler (2007), in her investigation into the presence of scientific authority in March, states that “the film became an arena for disagreement about social agendas: from the conflict over the cultural authority to interpret animal images.” The debate over March of the Penguins has implications for anthropomorphised story arcs that are presented as having scientific authority. Similar to criticisms of animations (particularly Disney’s) anthropomorphic ranking ‘of the animal world, a filmmakers ‘construction of nature may be used as scientific evidence ‘or proof for a particular ideology of an audience. Despite questions about scientific integrity it could be argued that nature-based filmmakers need to be able to anthropomorphise animals to make the film accessible to the general movie-goer. Indeed, it is important for filmmakers to tread carefully when personifying nature as their intentions could very well be misinterpreted.


Despite the criticism towards studios, the anthropomorphic or fuzzumentary genre proved to be a new avenue for monetary gain; audiences had an appetite for these kinds of films. The largely unexpected success of March helped to instigate the recent emergence of co-producer and distributor, Disneynature and has been responsible for a renaissance in wildlife cinema, this time approached, produced and marketed in a completely new way. It seems only poetic to then recognise that the very studio who is standing as the leading mastermind behind the fiction we see in cinemas, similarly, produces the most successful cinematic wildlife ‘reality’.

Disneynature has supported that their animal documentaries have been produced with a scientific and conservational principle, however, it is clear the encouraging business prospects were also a major motivator for Disney. The company was massively eager to start marketing a catalogue of films under the anthropomorphic styling that was made famous in March of the Penguins. As a part of the Disney empire, Disneynature pales in comparison to STAR WARS, MARVEL or Pixar; as one of the company’s lesser commercial juggernauts, it stands as a prime study into the status of cinematic documentary commercially in 2019. Simply put, documentaries on average don’t perform at the level of fictional blockbuster franchises, but they are not expected to either. Chimpanzee (2012) was produced with a budget of $5 million and ended up grossing $34.8 million worldwide, making it profitable for the company.

Predominantly, Disney is leading with a business-first strategy at the forefront of their decision making, operating with a low-risk high return attitude when it comes to their documentary brand. Although Disneynature’s cumulative worldwide box-office might not compare to that of the MARVEL cinematic universe that doesn’t matter, within documentary the studio has quietly positioned itself atop the genre, in turn legitimating the nature documentary and its potential for reward.

Disney treats the production of its nature documentaries in a very similar way to its most popular brands — If Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) was ripe for cinematic audiences because of the intellectual property; the appeal of the character of Han Solo, then the choice to document a lion over a ‘secondary character’ of the African savannah similarly follows this marketing philosophy. Disney has been able to create merchandise around their ‘real-life’ documentaries, once again the penguin on display as a popular animal character but this time as a cuddly plush teddy. With the rise of Netflix and other streaming services that offer audiences more forms of popular filmmaking, in many ways rivalling Hollywood, a studios intellectual property (IP) has become one of the most important assets in achieving financial acclaim. Many have claimed that this desire for more original IP for their upcoming streaming service was the reason Disney purchased 20th Century Fox.

The caveat for Disneynature: wild animals do not belong to any one studio, meaning anyone can produce a film about any animal that Disney has already documented. This could be a problem for a lesser studio but the Disney ‘seal of approval’ and the ‘star appeal’ the studio accedes seemingly boosts the status of any film the mouse house produces. After all, this is the same company that has been able to make Cinderella, Snow White, Tarzan, Peter Pan and The Little Mermaid, among others, synonymous with their brand, despite the stories not being original and seeing multiple retellings by a variety of other rival studios. Disney is an idea that audiences are willing to pay for, did you like Finding Nemo? Great, why don’t you check out Oceans (2009)? How about The Lion King? Because African Cats (2011) was created by Disney too. In an era in which the movie star has less influence than ever before, Disney has in many ways claimed and redefined this role — The familiarity and connection between pre-existing and new IP’s is one of the strongest reasons as to why Disney continues to dominate documentary, despite producing films from a single subgenre.

Over the last two decades, Disney has continually been positioned as a leader in the developments of popular filmmaking whether that 3-Dimensional computer-animated films or ever-growing cinematic universes. For these examples, we have seen other rival studios try their hand to challenge Disney, this has resulted in studios creating some of their highest-grossing films ever — competition breeds creativity. Despite Disney’s low-risk documentary success, we haven’t seen any other studios regularly challenge the mouse house with nature films of their own. One could put forth an argument to why this might be, as stated by Ball (2016), no other studio has built quite the same library of tantamount IP that affords them the ability the take advantage of their fictional line-up when producing documentaries. It has instead been left to impressive cinematic levels of television such as Planet Earth (2006) to compete with Disney.


You can follow me on social media @realconnorluke | I also have also released my own documentary FAT-TOPIA which is available on Amazon Prime and at

#documentary #article #filmmaking

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