Last night, Free Solo became the first National Geographic movie to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature—but if the company has its way, it won’t be the last.
National Geographic, which had briefly abandoned the documentary genre earlier this decade, is back with a vengeance, and could expand its documentary plans even further following the box office and awards season success of Free Solo, National Geographic Global Networks president Courteney Monroe told Adweek.
National Geographic will air Free Solo, ad-free, on March 3—a few weeks later than the network originally planned, to take advantage of the film’s surprise box office success (the movie has made $16.5 million so far).
Free Solo follows free soloist climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to achieve his lifelong dream: climbing the face of the famous 3,200-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, without a rope or gear (i.e., free soloing). The movie was National Geographic’s second Oscar-nominated documentary, after 2010’s Restrepo.
Shortly after Restrepo’s nomination in 2011, “we abandoned that category altogether, and then we came back two years ago,” Monroe told Adweek earlier this month.
On the strength of Free Solo’s run, “I think National Geographic should assume a leadership position in documentary films. It is as much of a big brand play for us as it is a business opportunity. These big doc films enable you to work with incredible talent, and support filmmaking at the highest level and support theaters,” said Monroe.
That said, “in the end, our core business is a television business. Ideally, I’d love to make two to four of these doc films a year. We’ve got some great stuff in development,” said Monroe, pointing to a pair of recent high-profile announcements last month.
National Geographic is teaming up with director Ron Howard on the documentary Rebuilding Paradise, which will focus on the community of Paradise, Calif., as it attempts to rebuild following last year’s devastating wildfire. And the company bought the environmental documentary Sea of Shadows, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, at the Sundance Film Festival.
Of course, the ultimate decision on National Geographic’s future with documentaries will be up to Disney, will which be its new parent once the Disney-Fox deal closes over the next couple of months. But Monroe has long maintained that Disney and National Geographic’s goals are aligned.
“I personally love the genre and would love us to do more, and it’s nice when you get some awards attention and box office attention,” said Monroe.
For now, she’s focused on celebrating Free Solo’s unexpected good fortune. “It’s hard to strike lightning multiple times, so we’re just trying to enjoy this and support our filmmakers, who made a great film,” said Monroe.