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Are Documentaries More at Home on Streaming?

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PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- You didn't have to buy a ticket to see any of the feature-length documentaries nominated for Academy Awards this year. You just had to have a decent Internet connection, a few bucks and some time on your hands.

Four of this year's five nominees for Best Documentary Feature -- The Act Of Killing, The Square, Cutie and the Boxer and Dirty Wars -- were either already on Netflix or headed there by the time they were nominated. The fifth, 20 Feet From Stardom, was available as a pay-per-view stream through Amazon, Apple's iTunes, Google Play and YouTube when the nominations were doled out.

There's a strong chance that, with few exceptions, this is how the U.S. public is going to see documentary films from now on. It's not to the credit or fault of documentary filmmakers or production companies, mind you. It's the U.S. moviegoer that's increasingly gravitating toward his or her couch and taking this genre with it.

According to BoxOfficeMojo, the 10 top-grossing documentaries of all time in the U.S. -- An Inconvenient Truth ($24.1 million), Sicko ($24.5 million), Katy Perry: Part Of Me ($25.3 million), One Direction: This Is Us ($28.9 million), Chimpanzee ($30 million), Earth ($32 million), 2016 Obama's America ($33.4 million), Justin Bieber: Never Say Never ($73 million), March Of The Penguins ($77.4 million) and Farenheit 9/11 ($119 million) -- were all released within the past decade. With few exceptions -- like 1994's Hoop Dreams ($7.8 million) or 2005's Mad Hot Ballroom ($8.1 million) and The Aristocrats ($6.4 million) -- only polarizing U.S. political polemics, behind-the-scenes pop music tour diaries or cute animals seem to bring out moviegoers in any large numbers.

Last year's top grossing documentary was the One Direction film named above. The next highest-grossing documentary after it, 20 Feet From Stardom, took in roughly one-sixth of One Direction's take ($4.9 million) despite being in theaters since June. Overall, only 133 of the 1,165 documentaries BoxOfficeMojo has documented since 1982 have made more than $1 million.

Generating loads of box-office income isn't really the point of a documentary. By its name, it's supposed to serve as a historic or cultural document and a dispatch from a particular time and place. It's the subject that is all important, not the receipts.

Unfortunately, that doesn't exactly fit the agenda of the modern film industry's costly digital upgrades, vanishing theaters and shrinking audiences. After a brief uptick in movie ticket sales in 2012, movie audiences retreated again in 2013. The number of tickets bought fell 1.3%, to 1.34 billion. That's the seventh downturn in ticket sales within the past decade and only moderately better than the post-recession low of 1.28 million tickets sold in 2011. It's also well below the industry's peak of 1.58 billion tickets sold in 2002 and roughly the same amount of tickets the industry moved in 1996.