10 Documentaries That Actually Changed Things

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iStock

Lots of documentaries spark a conversation, whether it’s about social justice or climate change. But all too often, that discussion fades away after a month or two of passionate debate. These 10 films didn’t just get people talking—they spurred court appeals, policy revisions, and even fast-food menu changes. Here’s how each of them made a real, tangible impact.

1. TITICUT FOLLIES (1967)

For 24 years, Frederick Wiseman’s unsettling documentary on the mistreated patients at Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane was banned—supposedly in the interest of those patients' privacy. But even though precious few people saw the film between 1967 and 1991, it’s credited with spurring the closure or reform of several major psychiatric hospitals. Plus, if Wiseman is to be believed, Bridgewater began using Titicut Follies as a training tool for employees on what not to do at work.

2. THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988)

Errol Morris tore into the evidence and testimony against Randall Dale Adams, a death row inmate accused of murdering a police officer, in this 1988 true crime documentary. His counter-argument was so convincing that it helped overturn Adams’ conviction, just days before he was sentenced to die by lethal injection.

3. BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (2002)

After Michael Moore confronted Kmart executives over their sale of firearms and ammunition, the company announced it would stop selling bullets in all of its stores. The chain of events unfolds in Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary, which explores the causes of mass shootings and America’s broader relationship with guns.

4. SUPER SIZE ME (2004)

Less than two months after Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, McDonald’s announced the end of “super-sizing.” The fast food corporation claimed the decision had nothing to do with Spurlock’s grotesque Big Mac binging, but considering the rapid timeline, no one really believed Mickey D’s.

5. THE COVE (2009)

Some reports question how much The Cove actually impacted dolphin hunting in the Japanese city of Taiji. The practice is still going on today, but the number of dolphins captured nationwide has definitely dropped, from 23,000 in 2009 to less than 6000 in 2015. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums also suspended its Japanese branch last spring for accepting dolphins acquired in the Taiji hunt; this move forced the branch to formally ban members from buying or exporting any dolphins from Taiji drive fisheries.

6. PARADISE LOST TRILOGY (1996-2011)

The Paradise Lost trilogy didn’t just bring widespread attention to the West Memphis Three murder case, it also earned the defendants crucial celebrity support. Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, and Eddie Vedder personally donated millions of dollars to help Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. appeal their conviction. And it worked. The three men were released in 2011, after serving over 18 years in prison.

7. GASLAND (2010)

An academic study found that Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary on fracking led to greater online searching and social media chatter, increased media coverage, and local anti-fracking mobilization. Guess all those critics who compared it to Silent Spring had a point.

8. INSIDE JOB (2010)

Two Columbia University staffers appeared in this exposé of the 2008 financial crisis: Economist/professor Frederic Mishkin and Business School dean Glenn Hubbard. Both men were less than transparent about their professional connections to the finance world. The film reveals that Mishkin wrote a paper about Iceland’s economy without disclosing the $124,000 he’d received from the country’s chamber of commerce. Hubbard, meanwhile, grew combative when questioned about his many consulting clients. A few months after Inside Job’s release, Columbia released much stricter disclosure rules for faculty who work with Wall Street, and the economics department chair credited the movie (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2011) as a driving force.

9. THE INVISIBLE WAR (2012)

Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War offers a harrowing look at the way rape cases in the U.S. military are mishandled. Mere days after watching it, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced a policy change in the way these crimes are investigated. This was before the documentary was even released. After its debut, one of the generals featured in the film was replaced, senators like Kirsten Gillibrand proposed even more radical policy changes, and the Pentagon introduced to new programs to “change the culture” surrounding rape allegations.

10. BLACKFISH (2013)

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary about captive orcas quickly proved to be bad business for SeaWorld. Bands ranging from The Beach Boys to Heart swiftly cancelled shows at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Tampa (which SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment owns). Attendance and revenue dropped. Southwest Airlines ended its 26-year business partnership with the company. The House of Representatives got involved. Then finally, SeaWorld’s new CEO announced the park would end its orca breeding program and modify all orca performances, so the whales would no longer be forced to vamp for audiences. Instead, they’ll simply swim and communicate with each other, just like they would in the ocean.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Almost Had a Different Title

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a favorite for fans of both the Harry Potter book series and its film franchise. In addition to offering readers a more mature outing for Harry and the gang, the stakes are far more dangerous—and the characters’ hormones are all over the place.

The name Goblet of Fire is a pretty literal title, as that’s how Harry is forced into the Triwizard Tournament. In addition to being accurate, the title has a nice ring to it, but it was previously revealed that JK Rowling had some other names in the running.

In JK Rowling: A Bibliography 1997-2013, author Philip W. Errington reveals tons of unknown details about the Harry Potter series, so much so that Rowling herself described it as "slavishly thorough and somewhat mind-boggling." In it, Errington revealed that Goblet of Fire had at least three alternate titles: Harry Potter and the Death Eaters, Harry Potter and the Fire Goblet, and Harry Potter and the Three Champions were all working titles before the final decision was made.

While Death Eaters sounds far too depressing and scary to market as a children’s book, Fire Goblet just doesn’t have the elegance of Goblet of Fire. As for Three Champions? It's as boring as it is vague. So kudos to Rowling and her editor for definitely making the correct choice here.

It's not the only time a Harry Potter title led to a larger discussion—and some confusion. In 1998, readers around the world were introduced to Harry through the first book in the series: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. But elsewhere around the world, it was known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

As Errington explains in his book, the book's publisher wanted “a title that said ‘magic’ more overtly to American readers." They were concerned that Philosopher's Stone would feel "arcane," and proposed some alternatives. While Rowling agreed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, she later admitted that she regretted the decision.

"To be honest, I wish I hadn't agreed now," she explained. "But it was my first book, and I was so grateful that anyone was publishing me I wanted to keep them happy."

The 20 Best-Selling Movie Soundtracks of All Time

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Movie soundtracks can be big business—sometimes bigger than the movie itself. (And sometimes better than the film itself.) In early December 2018, three soundtracks were in the Billboard Top 10, and Mariah Carey’s Glitter soundtrack has been in the news recently for reentering the charts. But they have a long way to go before entering the top echelon.

Here are the 20 best-selling movie soundtracks of all time—many of which have been on the list for decades.

(The following list is based on RIAA certified units).

1. The Bodyguard (1992)

Certified units: 18 million

Elvis Presley originally wanted to record Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” but his people wanted half the publishing rights. Parton refused and later commented that “when Whitney [Houston’s version] came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland."

2. Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Certified units: 16 million

CPR will never be the same.

3. Purple Rain (1984)

Certified units: 13 million

Prince wrote around 100 songs for the movie—and "Purple Rain" wasn’t even in that original group.

4. Forrest Gump (1994)

Certified units: 12 million

Like a box of chocolates, except songs, with everything from Jefferson Airplane to Lynyrd Skynyrd featured in Robert Zemeckis's Oscar-winning hit.

5. Dirty Dancing (1987)

Certified units: 11 million

Maybe don’t rush to get the album if you love the film’s songs: According to executive producer Jimmy Ienner, “We needed different mixes for the film and record ... For example, the guitars were dropped way down for the film because guitars weren’t a dominant instrument back then; saxophones were. We took out most of the synthesized stuff and replaced it with organs in the film version.”

6. Titanic (1997)

Certified units: 11 million

Céline Dion told Billboard that when she was recording "My Heart Will Go On," her thoughts were: “Sing the song, then get the heck out of there."

7. The Lion King (1994)

Certified units: 10 million

"Nants ingonyama" apparently translates to “Here comes a lion.” And if you've seen this Disney classic—which is about to get a live-action remake—you certainly know what "Hakuna Matata" means.

8. Footloose (1984)

Certified units: 9 million

When Ann Wilson of Heart was prepping to duet for the song “Almost Paradise” for Footloose, she broke her wrist. But she refused painkillers because they’d affect her singing voice.

9. Top Gun (1986)

Certified units: 9 million

The songs of Top Gun “still define the bombastic, melodramatic sound that dominated the pop charts of the [mid-80s],” according to AllMusic

10. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Certified units: 8 million

According to Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons, they were introduced to bluegrass through the Coen brothers's O Brother, Where Art Thou, saying “That movie kind of heralded the advent of bluegrass in mainstream British culture."

11. Grease (1978)

Certified units: 8 million

According to Box Office Mojo, Grease is the second highest-grossing musical of all time, beaten only by 2017’s Beauty and the Beast.

12. Waiting To Exhale (1995)

Certified units: 7 million

The song “Exhale” is famous for its "shoop" chorus. But writer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds explained that it’s a result of every time he wanted to write actual lyrics, they just got in the way.

13. The Little Mermaid (1989)

Certified units: 6 million

According to co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, “Part of Your World” was nearly cut from The Little Mermaid after a black-and-white and sometimes sketched version made a test audience squirm with boredom. Everyone kept with it until a more polished version solved the problem.

14. Pure Country (1992)

Certified units: 6 million

Not bad for a movie that only grossed $15 million (and one you've probably never heard of).

15. Flashdance (1983)

Certified units: 6 million

The song “Maniac” was originally inspired by a horror film the songwriters saw (the lyrics were rewritten for Flashdance).

16. Space Jam (1996)

Certified units: 6 million

Not only was "I Believe I Can Fly" the best-selling soundtrack single of 1997, but third place was Monica’s “For You I Will”—which is also from Space Jam.

17. The Big Chill (1983)

Certified units: 6 million

By RIAA certified units, The Big Chill soundtrack is the fifth biggest Motown album of all time.

18. City of Angels (1998)

Certified units: 5 million

One of the chief songs from the soundtrack—“Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette—caused some piracy issues. A California radio station got their hands on a bootlegged copy and played it. Someone recorded the song off the radio and uploaded it to the internet (this was in 1998) and even radio stations began playing illegally downloaded versions. As a result, Warner Music was forced to release the album to radio stations a week earlier than planned.

19. The Jazz Singer (1980)

Certified units: 5 million

Fun Fact: Neil Diamond won the first Razzie for Worst Actor for this movie and was also nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor.

20. Evita (1996)

Certified units: 5 million

Evita started off as a concept album in 1976. Then two years later it premiered on London’s West End. In 1979 it debuted on Broadway and an album was released that went platinum in the U.S. before Madonna got to it.

Honorable Mention: Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Certified units: 5 million

Whether a Broadway cast recording counts as a soundtrack or not is debatable, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cultural powerhouse managed to shift as many units as Madonna and Neil Diamond, according to the RIAA .

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