Bush-bashing abroad could fuel 'Fahrenheit's' B.O. fire

Will Michael Moore’s agitprop doc be as big a B.O. bonanza abroad as it is in the U.S.? That’s the key question as “Fahrenheit 9/11″ starts its international run in Europe and elsewhere over the next few weeks.

What’s clear is that Moore’s pic, like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” before it, is helping to blaze new filmmaking territory and rewriting the rules of box office performance.

Early returns from France suggest, perhaps not surprisingly in a country that actively deplores current American foreign policy, that the Bush-bashing broadside is likely to end up a global docbuster.

If other key foreign territories follow suit, the pic could end up grossing an unprecedented $100 million from foreign wickets — on par with its likely final domestic cume of $100 million.

That would easily make the pic, which cost $6 million, an unprecedented worldwide doc phenom.

Pic can easily count on liberal auds in places like Holland and Scandinavia to flock to screenings, but massive turnout are not a slam-dunk everywhere.

Despite the doc’s top Cannes prize, “Shrek 2″ and “Spider-Man 2″ are much more obvious potential summer crowdpleasers. And not all foreign moviegoers are as caught up in or fascinated by the current strife in American politics.

In Russia, for example, even members of the intellectual elite draw a blank at the name Michael Moore; in Israel, there’s very little anti-American sentiment to stoke interest in the pic; Czechs and Poles aren’t really that waxed about whether Bush was chummy with the bin Ladens; in Spain, the distrib is fretting that not enough money is available to market the movie to the masses.

Even in Britain, where awareness of the movie is quite high, it’s unclear whether the majority of moviegoers will take kindly to being lectured to by a coarse Yank whose journalistic credentials the local media regard with some mistrust.

Still, enough folks almost everywhere want to be seen as up on what’s trendy and talked about.

And it’s not just in Europe.

Even without making any personal appearances abroad, Moore’s mug is being plastered all over the papers — Mexico’s Riforma has published no less than 50 stories about Moore’s doc since May — and local distribs are busily doing their best to beat the promotional drums.

In Argentina, the pic’s release coincides with winter holidays, a period when there’s not much else out there for discerning adult auds; in Oz the local distrib is scheduling a series of carefully calibrated sneaks to whet the appetite of moviegoers; in Egypt, pundits predict that anti-Bush sentiment should help fill theaters.

Below is a rundown of release plans for “Fahrenheit” in some key territories.

UNITED KINGDOM

Moore hopes “Fahrenheit 9/11″ will make people in Britain wake up and start questioning their government’s involvement in the war in Iraq.

But Moore’s film is coming late to that particular party.

Even before the war, public opinion in Blighty was agonizingly split over Tony Blair’s decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with George W. Bush. In the past year, the country has swung decisively into the antiwar camp, and Blair’s previously Teflon popularity has become deeply stained.

So with Moore’s doc skedded to open in Blighty July 9, it would be preaching to the converted.

While there’s no doubt the doc will perform strongly, the only question is how eager Brits will be to buy tickets to be told what they already think they know.

U.K. distrib Optimum Releasing cautiously regards £3million-£4 million ($5.6 million-$7.4 million) as par for the pic, although others see $10 million as a realistic target, and one optimist has placed a bet on it reaching $18 million.

FRANCE

French filmgoers turned out in force on the opening day of “Fahrenheit 9/11″ July 7, hoisting the pic up to this year’s fifth-best opener.

Film notched up a substantial 90,000 admissions on its opening day in France. It’s been released on some 231 prints, a quarter of the number that would launch a blockbuster in France.

“It’s a historic record for a doc,” enthuses Stephane Celerier, managing director of Mars Distribution.

Moore enjoys a big following in France — “Bowling for Columbine” tallied more than a million ticket sales.

And this time round his choice of subject matter, mirroring widespread anti-Bush, antiwar sentiment in France, could hardly have been a more likely crowdpleaser.

GERMANY

“Bowling for Columbine” slowly became the highest-grossing doc in Germany, but pundits are expecting “Fahrenheit 9/11″ to pull much larger auds in a shorter time.

Distrib Falcom Media apparently planned an original 200 print launch but may now be upping that number. Pic opens July 29.

“This film does not belong in arthouses only but in large theaters, as the identification with the subject is strong, given the recent tensions between the U.S. and ‘Old Europe,’ ” says one chain owner.

SPAIN

Exhibs and pic’s Spanish distributor, Alta Classics, expect it to beat Moore’s own “Bowling for Columbine” as the highest-grossing doc ever in Spain. The only question is by how much.

“The Cannes Golden Palm converted Moore into a hugely respected figure in Spain,” says Madrid-based booker Roberto Bayon. “The film might not perform like in the U.S — a lot of young people simply don’t watch docs. But the prospects are still excellent.”

“Columbine” made $2.9 million. Alta prexy Enrique Gonzalez Macho predicts “Fahrenheit” will gross $9 million.

In “Fahrenheit’s” favor, Moore is hugely popular in Spain, where some 85% of the population opposed the war in Iraq.

“Fahrenheit” goes out in Spain July 23 on about 150 prints, some 140 in dubbed versions. Most prints will play in commercial plexes.

That’s a large print run for a doc, but Gonzalez-Macho pushed in vain for a larger P&A budget, in part to get prints down to the coast during Spain’s summer.

“Nobody likes to throw money away, but I think the Weinsteins should have trusted our opinion more. We know the market better than they do,” Gonzalez-Macho laments about the American funding brothers.

ITALY

In a country where political debate rings out from dinner tables and street corners as well as from parliament, film execs are sure that “Fahrenheit 9/11″ will hit a nerve when it rolls out on 200 screens on Aug. 27.

Hype was boosted last week when Moore declared he hoped Italy would get “a regime change — and the sooner the better.” The director was referring to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of Bush’s strongest allies.

Franco Ugolini, commercial director for the Italian distribber of the doc Bim, says Italians are highly conscious of and interested in politics — a fact that should help extend the lines at the moviehouses.

HOLLAND

“Fahrenheit 9/11″ will have no trouble drawing moviegoers in the Netherlands, where the politically liberal milieu means Moore’s humor and his message, coupled with the film’s taking the top prize in Cannes, makes it a B.O. shoo-in. Pic opens on July 22.

“We’re not seeing any negatives on this,” says Yosha Margherita, sales and marketing manager for Paradiso Entertainment Netherlands, which is distribbing the film.

Total number of prints is being kept under wraps but she says it “will be a lot more than ‘Bowling for Columbine,’ ” which was released on 13 prints and pulled an all-time high doc B.O. of almost $800,000.

SCANDINAVIA

Interest in the doc began early in liberal Scandinavia.

Pan-Scandi distrib Scanbox in fact snapped up the pic in Cannes — not this year when it won the Palme d’Or but at the 2003 edition.

“We were among the first buyers to sign for the film,” managing director Jorgen Kristiansen recalls. “They had nothing at all to show us, but I liked the project for its subject, its attitude and its timing to coincide with the U.S. presidential campaign.”

Scanbox will release the film in Denmark, Finland and Iceland on Aug 6, in Sweden on Aug 27 and in Norway Sept 3, on a — for a doc — record number of 79 prints, following a modest marketing effort.

“It targets audiences which read newspapers, so we do not have to tell them what it is about. One paper here printed seven full pages about it after it had won at Cannes,” he added.

CZECH REPUBLIC

It was the most sought-after ticket at the recent Karlovy Vary Film Fest, but how “Fahrenheit 9/11″ will play in rural Bohemia is an open question.

Even OpenPictures, which handles sales in most of Central Europe, isn’t sure.

CEO Stefan Piech is optimistic. “We expect a bigger success here in the Czech Republic — proportionally — than in other Central European territories.”

OpenPictures was expected to announce the sale of rights to leading distrib Bonton by the end of last week.

RUSSIA

Local distrib Paradise will release the doc Sept. 2 on 50 prints, but details of the launch are still fuzzy.

Any B.O. success for “Fahrenheit” will likely come from interest in its Cannes prize, rather than in the politics.

Despite ambivalent feelings in Russia toward U.S. foreign policy, Moore is hardly known even in progressive intellectual circles.

ISRAEL

An SRO crowd took in “Fahrenheit 9/11″ at the Jerusalem Film Fest last week, but local distrib Shani and Lev are cautious about the doc’s wider prospects.

“It’s not as relevant here as in the U.S. or Europe,” says Ramy Romanovsky, director of distribution at the Tel Aviv arthouse outfit.

“Politically, Israeli is not anti-American. It’s dependent on the States. There was not a lot of antiwar sentiment here.”

Doc was to be released July 10 on six prints in Lev cinemas in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and nearby towns of Ranana and Ramat Gan.

“We love the film but we can’t tell how it will do,” says Romanovsky. “In a test screening, the audience was split down the middle, for and against.”

AUSTRALIA

“Michael Moore is a household name, an A-list star who can open a picture,” says Troy Lum, managing director of Australian distrib Hopscotch Films.

That’s no idle boast considering the iconic helmer’s “Bowling for Columbine” grossed a healthy A$4.8 million ($3.3 million), a record haul for a doc Down Under, for Hopscotch.

Lum is confident “Fahrenheit 9/11″ will perform even better when it debuts July 29 on a relatively wide 90 prints. He’s aiming for an eventual gross of $5.6 million-$7 million.

Lum is hoping for an M rating (recommended for auds ages 15 plus) and would be peeved if it gets an MA, which means youngsters under 15 must be accompanied by an adult.

Meanwhile, the anti-Moore movement in the U.S. has reached out to Oz.

Hopscotch has received hundreds of emails from individuals and conservative groups in the U.S. urging it not to release the film and alleging it desecrates the memories of the 9/11 victims.

Many Australians opposed the government’s decision to send troops to Iraq, and Labor leader Mark Latham has said he will recall the troops by Christmas if his party wins upcoming federal elections.

LATIN AMERICA

The U.S. won few allies from its traditional back yard of Latin America when it sought support for its war on Iraq. It won’t come as a surprise then if Moore’s scathing attack on Bush becomes a record-breaking draw across the region.

Many Argentinians, for example, feel Bush’s initial lack of support partly led to the country’s crippling debt default and economic collapse in 2001.

Brazil’s Europa/MAM plans a July 30 release on some 50 prints, a high count for a doc.

MAM principal Marco Aurelio Marcondes projects record admissions of 400,000 to 500,000.

“People are curious about the film. It exposes Bush as a hypocrite and shows that he had no reason to do what he is doing around the world,” says Wilson Feitosa, Europa’s general manager.

In Mexico, Moore’s “Stupid White Men” is a bestseller while “Bowling for Columbine” played the arthouse circuit for months, bringing in $640,000 — more than many commercial films and virtually all Mexican films manage.

“Fahrenheit” is likely to get wider distribution in Mexico than “Columbine” in an August bow.

Ken Bensinger in Mexico, Tom Birchenough in Moscow, Adam Dawtrey in London, Marcelo Cajueiro in Brazil, Anna Maria de la Fuente in Hollywood, Marlene Edmunds in Amsterdam, Janet Fine in Egypt, Melanie Goodfellow in Jerusalem, Don Groves in Sydney, John Hopewell in Spain, Alison James in Paris, Sheri Jennings in Rome, Jorn Rossing Jensen in Scandinavia and Charles Newbery in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.

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