The acclaimed new film Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain did big business in its box office debut over the weekend, scoring the biggest weekend opening for a documentary — or any specialty film — during the pandemic era.
Roadrunner grossed an impressive $1.9 from 927 locations for Focus Features and CNN Films. The critically acclaimed doc is a poignant chronicle of Bourdain, the chef-turned-popular-TV host who committed suicide in 2018. Many of those close to him worked with Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville.
The specialty film business has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis. The performance of Roadrunner helps signal that the indie industry is rebounding following the successful debut of A24’s Zola and fellow Focus release Summer of Soul (the latter is also a doc.)
Roadrunner played best on the coasts, with as many as four of the top 10 runs coming from New York City as art house theaters start to make a comeback. The Angelika Film Center in New York topped the list and reported record numbers since reopening.
Neville’s credits include the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom, the Emmy-award winning Best of Enemies and the critically acclaimed Fred Rogers doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which broke records in its 2018 box office run for a biographical documentary.
Roadrunner became the focus of a fierce debate on social media last week when Neville revealed in an interview with The New Yorker he had used artificial intelligence to recreate Bourdain’s voice for 45 seconds. The use of A.I. is not disclosed in the film.
Ottavia Busia, Bourdain’s ex-wife, fueled the debate on July 16 when tweeting: “I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that.”
New Yorker author Helen Rosner wrote a follow-up story on July 17 addressing the issue. She revealed that Neville wrote her a note earlier that day stating that the A.I. idea “was part of my initial pitch of having Tony narrate the film posthumously á la Sunset Boulevard — one of Tony’s favorite films and one he had even reenacted himself on Cook’s Tour,” adding, “I didn’t mean to imply that Ottavia thought Tony would’ve liked it. All I know is that nobody ever expressed any reservations to me.”
Rosner also revealed that Busia told her, via email, that Busia did indeed recall Neville broaching the topic of using A.I. in early conversations but didn’t realize it had been used. “I do believe Morgan thought he had everyone’s blessing to go ahead,” Busia wrote to Rosner. “I took the decision to remove myself from the process early on because it was just too painful for me.”
Roadrunner marks Neville’s biggest box office opening to date. That’s because his other films have opened in select theaters — usually in New York and Los Angeles — before expanding. This release practice has long been favored by specialty distributors, but has been waylaid by the pandemic since L.A. and New York were two of the last markets to reopen.
“To be the top specialty film opening of the year and the highest of Morgan’s illustrious career, it’s truly a thrill for us all at Focus and a testament to the legacy Bourdain created,” Focus president of distribution Lisa Bunnell said. “We’re hopeful that it will have a great run throughout the summer and a positive sign we’re moving back towards normalcy for our business and our partners in exhibition.”
The doc will later broadcast on CNN and then stream on HBO Max following its debut on premium VOD in three weeks.
The last documentary to open to more was in August 2019 with the boy band BTS doc Bring the Soul, which debuted to $2.3 million.