While it may be too soon to tell if “Fahrenheit 9/11″ will have an impact on the presidential election, Michael Moore has already influenced the way distribs think about documentaries.

Conventionally, a politically charged doc would have received a platform release. If it caught fire, it could be expanded to a couple hundred theaters several weeks later, as United Artists did with Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.”

But “Fahrenheit,” its buzz boosted by the Disney-Miramax controversy and a Cannes Palme d’Or win, is among the top-grossing films of the year. It’s also setting records for the genre, including being the biggest and widest opening ever for a documentary ($23.9 million at 868 theaters).

Lions Gate and IFC Films were officially tapped to work on the U.S. release just 24 days before its June 25 bow by Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s specially formed Fellowship Adventure Group.

Lions Gate co-prexy Tom Ortenberg says taking the film wide right off the bat was a priority because “it was important to make sure ‘Fahrenheit 9/11′ was taken seriously on its own merits, not just as a political tool for a particular political persuasion.”

To make good on both counts, the first decision was to move the release date up from the July 4 weekend for one simple reason: Sony’s “Spider-Man 2″ bowed June 30.

“It was a competitive decision,” Ortenberg says. “We all liked the idea of going out July Fourth weekend, but then as we got closer, June 25 was a better time to open the movie. Even though we knew we wouldn’t outgross ‘Spider-Man,’ we would be competing for attention.”

Going out a week earlier, he adds, gave “Fahrenheit” a better chance to be “the event movie of that weekend.”

Though they would still be opening in the heart of a crowded summer, the distribs set about carefully picking the first wave of theaters. Ordinarily, distributors use historical box office data to pick the theaters they want. If you’re releasing “The Bourne Supremacy,” the first thing you’d want to know is where “The Bourne Identity” did its best business.

But there really wasn’t any comparable pics, so in selecting the first 868 engagements, Ortenberg says the team was relying on educated guesses. “In large part it was picking the best theaters in America, or what we call the guns: the big megaplexes that can play any kind of film. We were confident in the movie, but we weren’t certain how broadly it would play.”

The key to the first weekend was demonstrating “Fahrenheit” had broad audience appeal, balancing arthouses with commercial venues. Also, Ortenberg says, it was important to open the picture in all 50 states. “The 868 was a carefully crafted plan. We did say no to a lot of theaters because we wanted to concentrate on the core runs.”

The limited version of a wide release paid off. Averaging an amazing $27,558 per screen, “Fahrenheit” had surpassed “Columbine’s” total $21.6 million run in its first weekend.

Heading into the second week, “Fahrenheit” expanded to 1,725, adding 857 venues.

That second wave helped “Fahrenheit” weather the webslinger storm, as it dipped just 32% (albeit on nearly double the screens). “When we survived ‘Spider-Man,’ I knew there was no picture in the marketplace that would materially affect our film,” says Ortenberg.

The doc widened yet again in its third week, topping 2,000 screens. Since then, the amount of runs has begun to come down, but “Fahrenheit” has nonetheless demonstrated strong staying power, with weekly drops of less than 40% in its first seven weeks.

“The film was not a one- or two-week wonder,” Ortenberg says. “Even by going to our widest points, we were not diluting our runs.”

Despite a DVD release planned for Oct. 5, he says, he expects the film to keep unspooling through the election. “My hunch is that the picture plays strongly in a core couple of hundred theaters through the fall.”

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