Film Fund-amentals: Politics at the Box Office

What do Sarah Palin, Ayn Rand and David Zucker have in common? They have all given us proof that political posturing often translates into box office poison.

The spectacular no-go of the recent release of the documentary The Undefeated may not have an effect on Palin’s own future plans, but it certainly tells us that Tina Fey doesn’t have to worry about being upstaged. Likewise, the quick defeat of The Undefeated follows a pretty consistent pattern of ultra-conservative movies and extremely empty theaters.

The pattern was first established in 2008 with the Zucker comedy An American Carol. Made for a modest $20 million, this farcical presentation of Michael Moore as the most dangerous threat since Soviet communism barely took in $7 million during its month-long run, despite heavy “grass-root” promotion through various right-wing websites and radio shows. Its DVD release has been equally lackluster, and it is now available in various $1 movie bins.

Next up to bat was the recent release of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. Made for an extremely modest $10 to $15 million by hard-core Ayn Rand adherents, the flick barely took in $4.5 million during a singularly miserable five-week run made more lively by the movie’s producer insisting that he was the victim of a vast left-wing media conspiracy. Again, the film depended heavily on a “grass root” promotion campaign through various right-wing websites and radio shows.

Finally, the trend reached an inverted zenith with The Undefeated. Made for a meager $1 million, the movie barely squeaked out a box office return of $31.5 thousand (yes, thousand, not millions) during a disastrous two-week release in some of the most uber-conservative theater markets they could find. Again, the movie relied on a “grass root” promotion effort via right-wing websites and conservative radio shows. A re-release of the old John Wayne western would have been more successful. Heck, a few paying customers probably thought that they were going to a Wayne movie.

Obviously, the first major lesson we can learn from this is that you do not conduct a “grass root” campaign for a movie on right-wing websites and radio shows. These folks just don’t go to movies. Personally, I suspect that they are much happier venting their spleen either online or by phone rather than sitting quietly in a theater for a couple of hours.

Actually, I’m not joking. One of the problems with these films is an issue of demographics more than politics. The promotion campaigns for these movies have largely been targeting the talk radio audience model: a white male, 50-plus in age (often closer to 70). The current movie audience is primarily an ethnically mixed collection between the ages of 15 and 45, with females making up more than 50 percent. To be honest, it would be more accurate to describe these PR efforts as a “gray root” campaign, not “grass root.” Either way, they’re not even preaching to the choir. It’s more like shouting at the bass section only.

But these movies have also forgotten another important rule of the commercial film industry: The audience has a virtual Constitutional (and certainly God-given) right not to go to your movie. They just don’t have to spend their money to watch whatever you put on the screen. Even worse, the audience is quite capable of exercising this right on a regular basis. They can simply go to another film instead. This type of free and open selection by the audience is called capitalism. I don’t quite understand why I am having to explain this to right-wing filmmakers, but all I can add is, “Welcome to the pain of the marketplace, pal.”

The failure of these three films also reminds us of the old Sam Goldwyn quote: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Today you would use a blog site, but otherwise Sam was basically right. As a general rule, people won’t pay money to see a movie that appears to be a political lecture, left-wing or right-wing. Ironically, one of the few exceptions to this is Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11 took in over $220 million globally, more than half of that in the US alone). Sure, many right-wingers view Moore’s success as proof of the vast media conspiracy, but that theory makes about as much sense as my claim that George Clooney is stalking me. Besides, I think George has given up on me. Must be part of the conspiracy.

Nobody has a real clue as to the political convictions of the current movie audience. It is quite possible that even the audience doesn’t have a clue. But that is OK. Most people go to movies for a form of emotional engagement, not politics. In some respects, that has been the key to Michael Moore’s success. Fahrenheit 9/11 captured the anger and frustration of lots of people (while the arguably more “political” production of Sicko was vastly less successful). At his best, Moore engages the audience through a combination of smart-aleck commentary, man-bites-dog one-upmanship and a shrewd mix of farce and didactic arguments.

Otherwise, most attempts at political statements in movies end up sounding as if the filmmaker is hectoring the audience. As a rule, people won’t pay to be hectored. They come to see a story, not a harangue. Heck, they might even want a little romance on the side. OK, nobody is going to pay good money to see Michael Moore in love, but they want something more than a lecture.

Gosh, they might even want a story, and if the filmmaker is looking to send a message, he or she might just try slipping it through the back door while otherwise focusing on the story. It is an old approach to this issue, but it tends to work more often than not.