The debate over the early grosses of The Undefeated continues, with a pace and level of engagement unseen since Hamilton, Madison, and Jay* composed The Federalist. Conor Friedersdorf replies to the truly amusing insta-industry of conspiracy theorists who don’t believe he saw an empty screening of the film. Joshua Green crunches more numbers. Me, I’m suddenly reminded of the last time people obsessed over the gross of a movie to see whether it proved everything they believed about politics. That was seven years ago, when Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 debuted. Some conservatives tried (and failed) to argue that the movie was a political contribution to Kerry/Edwards; some tried to prove it wasn’t actually that successful. In a fascinating deep dive after the election, Byron York proved that the movie was more popular in blue states than red areas – it was candy for the base, not a successful conversion engine – while arguing that the film wasn’t as successful as people thought.
Certainly the picture had a spectacular opening weekend for a documentary. But Moore always claimed a special status for the movie, that it was much more than a documentary. (He withdrew it from Academy Award consideration in the documentary category, opting instead to position it unsuccessfully, as it turned out — for a Best Picture nomination.) And as a film phenomenon, Fahrenheit 9/11’s opening was not nearly as spectacular as Moore claimed.
To make a comparison: Which film had a better opening weekend, Fahrenheit 9/11 or Barbershop 2: Back in Business? The correct answer is Barbershop. In terms of opening receipts, Mean Girls also beat Fahrenheit 9/11, as did Starsky & Hutch, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, Alien vs. Predator, 50 First Dates, and several others. The year’s big hits, like Shrek 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Spiderman 2 all had openings between four and five times the size of Fahrenheit 9/11’s. In the end, Fahrenheit 9/11 had the 32nd-best opening weekend of 2004, taking in $23,920,637 in its first days.
True: Fahrenheit 9/11 broke documentary records (unless we count Jackass movies as documentaries). But its per-screen average was insanely high. It made $27,558 per screen its first weekend, selling out all over the country. By comparison, The Undefeated appears to have made an average of $7,500 per screen. Its best showings, in Orange County and in Phoenix, netted around $10,000 to $12,000. Adjusting for inflation, Fahrenheit 9/11 was around four times as successful as The Undefeated.
This isn’t a perfect comparison, because Moore’s film had a far bigger paid media campaign and stronger distribution network than Bannon’s film. By the standards applied to Moore’s film, though, the new film isn’t showing signs of broad-based success.
*I know he barely did any of the work, but cut him slack. He was sick.