|June 27th, 2004 11:06 pm
NYT: Fahrenheit 9/11 is Highest Grossing Documentary of All Time!
By SHARON WAXMAN / THE NEW YORK TIMES
June 28, 2004
LOS ANGELES — Michael Moore’s anti-Bush “Fahrenheit 9/11” became the highest-grossing documentary of all time on its first weekend in release, taking in $21.8 million as it packed theaters across the country this weekend.
The movie, mocking President Bush and criticizing his decision to go to war in Iraq, was No. 1 at the box office, beating out the popular comedies “White Chicks” and “DodgeBall,” which were playing on almost triple the number of screens.
Theater owners in large cities and smaller towns reported sellout crowds over the weekend, with numerous theaters declaring house records.
The phenomenal opening represented a decisive victory for Mr. Moore and for the Miramax movie executives Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who released the film independently after it was rejected by Miramax’s corporate parent, the Walt Disney Company, as too political.
“We sold out in Fayetteville, home of Fort Bragg,” in North Carolina, Mr. Moore said on Sunday. “We sold out in Army-base towns. We set house records in some of these places. We set single-day records in a number of theaters. We got standing ovations in Greensboro, N.C.
“The biggest news to me this morning is this is a red-state movie,” he said, referring to the state whose residents voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 election. “Republican states are embracing the movie, and it’s sold out in Republican strongholds all over the country.”
Harvey Weinstein said: “It’s beyond anybody’s expectations. I’d have to say the sky’s the limit on this movie. Who knows what territory we’re in.”
Mr. Moore’s 2002 film, “Bowling for Columbine,” had held the record for the highest-earning documentary until this weekend, taking in $21.6 million in its domestic run.
Market research leading up to the weekend had shown that the documentary would rank second or third at the box office after the two mainstream comedies. But “White Chicks” took in $19.6 million for the weekend on 2,726 screens, while “DodgeBall” took in $18.5 million on 3,020. “Fahrenheit 9/11,” rated R, was released on 868 screens.
Even rival studio executives recognized that documentary’s opening as exceptional. “This picture came from nowhere,” said Tom Sherak, a principal at Revolution Studios, which made “White Chicks.” “It’s what movie viewing has become. If you make it feel like it has urgency, people will have to go.”
Attendance for “Fahrenheit 9/11” resembled nothing so much as the other surprise movie event of this year, the fervor ignited by Mel Gibson’s movie about the Crucifixion, “The Passion of the Christ.” That film has taken in $370 million domestically and sailed to blockbuster status on a wave of media controversy and debate.
Mr. Moore and Mr. Weinstein are masters at creating media hype, and “Fahrenheit 9/11” benefited from the controversy over its release when Disney declined to distribute it in late spring. The film went on to become a sensation at the Cannes International Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or in May, and was picked up for distribution by the independent distributors Lions Gate and IFC Films, who promised to release the film by the Fourth of July.
The movie depicts the Bush family’s business ties to Saudi Arabia and portrays the president as over his head and out of touch; Mr. Moore goes to Flint, Mich., his hometown, to interview a devastated mother who has lost her son in Iraq and questions what he died for.
Mr. Weinstein predicted that “Fahrenheit 9/11” would certainly take in $50 million, and possibly $100 million. He said he expected the film to expand to twice as many theaters next week, and ultimately to be on as many as 2,000 screens, a scale that would redefine the traditional reach of documentary films.
Beyond making box-office history, the movie may be seen by some as a bellwether of political support for the president and the war. The film’s weekend success was fodder for the Sunday morning political talk shows, as pundits wondered what the political influence of the film might be, if any, on President Bush’s re-election campaign.
Mr. Moore said that the film was a wake-up call to the pundits too. “I can’t tell you how many times in the last week I’ve watched commentators say, `But people who like Bush are going to stay home.’ They broke it down that way,” he said. “It was far too simplistic.”
Mr. Moore said that he first got an inkling that his movie would be more than just an average release when he learned that it had broken the house records on Wednesday at the two Manhattan theaters where it opened.
Then on Friday night he said he went to watch the movie at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, and in the middle of the screening was recognized by audience members. “Suddenly everyone was turning around, and starting to applaud during the movie,” Mr. Moore said. “I was going, `Sit down, watch the movie.’ I had to get out of there.”
He added: “Clearly something has happened here that no one expected. And there aren’t words to describe how any of us feel this morning on hearing this news.