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In June 2004, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 — a critical examination of then-President George W. Bush — opened nationwide to a record-shattering $23.9 million from 868 cinemas, enough to top the weekend chart ahead of other new offerings like White Chicks and The Notebook in a remarkable showing for a political documentary.
More than 14 years later, Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, tackling Donald Trump’s election and presidency, didn’t open with the same punch. Instead, it languished in its debut over the Sept. 21-23 weekend, placing No. 8 with a lowly $3.1 million from 1,702 theaters and marking a career-worst average for the filmmaker of $1,804. (As an example, Fahrenheit 9/11‘s average was $27,558.)
Moore worked hard to publicize the opening of the movie, which was distributed by Tom Ortenberg’s new company, Briarcliff Entertainment. He appeared on MSNBC and CNN; visited The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Real Time With Bill Maher and The View; and was profiled on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter. But in the intervening years between the two Fahrenheit films, social media and the 24/7 news cycle have exploded, and that may have in effect diminished the impact that Moore’s own voice has. In effect, his new critique of Trump is competing with the daily jokes and attacks lodged by cable news pundits and late-night comedians.
“Moore is part of the chorus these days, not the ringleader like he seemed to be back when Fahrenheit 9/11 dropped. Uncovering outlandish tweets and insane, alleged cover-ups is an everyday occurrence when it comes to Trump. Fahrenheit 11/9 felt outdated the day it dropped,” said box-office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations.
Moreover, it was a huge gamble to open Fahrenheit 11/9 on 1,702 screens, the widest release of all time for a documentary that isn’t a studio concert or nature film.
While Fahrenheit 9/11 succeeded after opening nationwide — it topped out at $119.2 million domestically and $222.4 million globally — almost every other political or specialized doc has opted for a platform release in order to build upon word-of-mouth and avoid losing theaters.
This summer, hit docs Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ($22.6 million), RBG ($14 million) and Three Identical Strangers ($12.1 million) all rose to glory after launching in limited theaters. At its widest, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? played in 832 theaters, while the other two never played in more than 450 locations. None of the films ever had a $3.1 million weekend like Fahrenheit just recorded — Neighbor‘s best weekend showing was $2.6 million in its fifth weekend when it was playing in 893 theaters — but by opening slowly and then building, all three were able to play for two to three months. Fahrenheit, however, will now face the challenge of holding onto theaters at a time when dozens of new fall entries, both studio and independent fare, will be competing for bookings.
Ironically, Fahrenheit’s fate may have been foreshadowed by that of conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza’s summer offering, the pro-Trump Death of a Nation. Politically, the two couldn’t be more different, but like Fahrenheit 11/9, D’Souza’s latest offering opted to open nationwide. The doc grossed $2.4 million from 1,005 cinemas in its debut and topping out at $5.9 million, the worst showing of D’Souza’s career.
Death of a Nation was playing in 354 locations by its third weekend and gone after six — again, a contrast to Neighbor, which played for 14 weekends.
Those backing Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, which cost a reported $4 million to $5 million to make before marketing, insist the movie’s opening gross isn’t an issue. “We’re optimistic,” said Briarcliff distribution head Steve Bunnell, noting the film’s A CinemaScore and strong PostTrak exit scores. “The idea was to have the movie play everywhere before the midterm elections.”
Fahrenheit wasn’t the weekend’s only casualty in terms of a specialized film deciding to brave the nationwide waters. Opening a movie across North America requires a major hefty marketing spend for an indie distributor, i.e., at least $10 million to $20 million, which cannot compare with what a major studio has available to allocate on advertising.
This Is Us showrunner Dan Fogelman’s star-studded Life Itself didn’t even crack the top 10. The multigenerational drama, placing No. 11, earned an estimated $2.1 million from 2,578 cinemas, the second-worst showing of all time for a movie opening in more than 2,000 theaters.
Life Itself — ravaged by critics — is a major blow for Amazon Studios, which ponied up north of $10 million for rights to the film, which stars Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas.
Sam Levinson’s satirical thriller Assassination Nation fared even worse, earning an estimated $1 million from 1,403 theaters for new specialty distributor Neon, which, in partnership with the Russo brothers, likewise paid north of $10 million for rights to the no-holds-barred, teen, black comedy after it premiered in January at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Wide openings can be risky make-or-break propositions. And this weekend, the odds were not in their favor.
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Jon M. Chu