Imposter - amazing opening for a doc that's not a doc
By Charlie Phillips 30 August, 2012
The big doc release of last week was The Imposter which had one of the best-ever opening weekends for a documentary, grossing £345,000 over the long weekend, selling out in some places, and getting rave reviews. I saw it myself on Friday night in a packed cinema. A rare treat of actually seeing a doc I'd not seen before on the big screen. It really is as good as the critics say, with suspense throughout and, when the twists start to come, real menace.
Charles Gant compared its success to other recent doc cinema releases, predicting that it will outstrip Marley, Man On Wire (which didn't do as spectacularly at the cinema a you might have thought), and even (gasp) the recent Katy Perry doc. It would be disingenuous to say honestly that its a surprise hit, with its big marketing campaign, omnipresence in the media, and backing from the major indie cinema chain Picturehouse, meaning that it would never totally flop. But it has done satisfyingly better than might have been expected, especially considering the marketing push of the films mentioned above which were even more substantial.
So why's it captured attention? I think it's because it's trying to avoid calling itself a documentary and so have a lot of the reviews. It's a 'thriller' or an 'engrossing story' and where documentary is mentioned, it's with the sense that it's not like other docs - as Metro put it, "Documentary The Imposter is a thriller more bizarre and involving than anything the finest fiction writer could come up with." So, it's a documentary but it's basically a fiction film that really happened. You won't feel like you're watching a documentary, so it's OK to go to see it on date night. Unlike Marley or Perry, where you're always aware you're watching a non-fiction film about a real person and there's no major plot surprises, so they're firmly rooted in what cinema-going audiences expect a documentary to be. The Imposter as a film and as a marketing campaign isn't like that - it's an unexpected narrative journey featuring substantial peril, and that makes it good for and audience who want popcorn and escapism.
I think this is good - escaping what an audience (even a supportive one) expects when they see the word 'documentary' in their cinema listings is good for us getting more in there. I've spoken to a few doc people who are cross about The Imposter trying to 'Pass Off' as a fiction, as if it owes some loyalty to the documentary community to shout loud and proud about being here and doccy. I don't accept that - it's expanding audiences' minds about what non-fiction looks like.
We know it, maybe they don't. So good work, Revolver and Picturehouse, on your campaign.