Docbuster still sizzling

'Fahrenheit 9/11' draws biz, boycott

In its first week of expansion, “Fahrenheit 9/11” continued its unprecedented run at the box office, grossing an estimated $21 million over the four-day weekend.

With a healthy $12,174 average per booking, pic far outpaced Disney’s “America’s Heart and Soul,” the company’s foray into docs after rejecting Michael Moore’s pic. Some conservatives had latched onto “Heart and Soul” as counterprogramming to Moore’s scathing attack on the Bush administration. Walt Disney reported the doc, which opened Friday on 98 screens, grossed just $173,000, or $1,764 per screen.

Bolstered by the boffo returns, “Fahrenheit,” which expanded to 1,725 theaters in its second week, is now the biggest-grossing doc ever, with a cume of $60.1 million.

Lions Gate and IFC Films are planning even further expansion for “Fahrenheit” on Friday, but as they look to book the pic into smaller towns, they have run into opposition from some theater owners who object to Moore’s politically charged documentary.

Midwest chains bow out

Fridley Theaters said it would not play the doc at any of the 34 houses it runs in Iowa and Nebraska, accusing the film of “emboldening” terrorists. And GKC Theaters, the nation’s 15th largest exhib chain — with 268 screens mostly in Illinois and Michigan — has decided not to add additional runs beyond the one theater in Traverse City, Mich., that opened the doc June 25.

Despite these developments in small-town America, IFC head Jonathan Sehring said the pic “seems to be playing everywhere. The film is defying all explanations.”

In fact, pic dropped just 31% from an opening weekend that right-wingers said would be its only hurrah. This clearly suggests the film is being seen by more than just hardcore liberals.

“Fahrenheit” cume of $60.1 million in 11 days of wide release puts the $100 million mark well within reach.

R.L. Fridley, owner of the Fridley chain, sent an email to his staff saying he refused to “play political propaganda films from either the right or the left,” according to a copy obtained by the Associated Press.

Pic ‘divides country’

Fridley added, “Our country is in a war against an enemy who would destroy our way of life, our culture and kill our people. These barbarians have shown through (the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001) and the recent beheadings that they will stop at nothing. I believe this film emboldens them and divides our country even more.”

Fridley did not respond to messages left at his office and home on Monday.

GKC made the decision not to play “Fahrenheit” for similar political reasons after company officials, including prexy Beth Kerasotes, screened the doc. GKC veep James Whitman confirmed GKC would not add “Fahrenheit” screens but said the chain had no comment about the decision.

(Earlier this year, GKC attracted national attention for introducing an “R-Card,” which allowed teens under 17 to be pre-approved to attend R-rated movies without being accompanied by their parents.)

Lions Gate prexy Tom Ortenberg blasted the decisions by the theater owners as censorship.

First Amendment question

“These two theater chains are mostly in smaller towns. It raises serious questions about the spirit of the First Amendment, if not the letter, for these people to suppress and censor a film when they’re the only game in town.”

Ortenberg also pointed out that all of the nation’s largest chains are playing “Fahrenheit.”

Neither chain’s decision seems to be directly connected to the campaign by conservative org Move America Forward to bombard exhib execs with pleas not to play “Fahrenheit.” Group has removed a Web page with exhib contact info from its site, replacing it with a critique of the pic.

GKC veep Bryan Jeffries told the Traverse City Record Eagle the chain had heard from more people in favor of playing the pic than not.

“I would say that the ratio has been 5-to-1 in favor of bringing the movie, but that doesn’t surprise me. The people against it are probably ignoring it and wishing it would go away, and I think that makes sense,” Jeffries told the local paper, which also reported a packed house on opening night and “a loud round of applause” after the doc’s first screening.

Ortenberg said of the past weekend’s “Fahrenheit” perf, “I believe for the most part we’re still in the process of reaching the broadest possible audience.”

Rolling out to diverse auds

He said he was particularly pleased with the results at several new bookings at Magic Johnson Theaters.

“Looking at the grosses in some of the urban areas, we’re reaching out to an African-American audience, which is heartening,” he said. “At the Magic Johnson Theaters, we were a solid No. 3 behind ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘White Chicks.’ ”

He added that early results of exit polls showed the pic was pulling in more young people. On opening weekend, 83% of the aud was over the age of 25. “We’re going to continue to reach out to all demographics and push the pic forward to play as broadly as possible,” Ortenberg said.

Already one of the most widely publicized pics of the year, “Fahrenheit” got an added marketing boost with Moore landing the cover of both Time and Entertainment Weekly magazines.

“People wondered if it was a one-weekend wonder,” Ortenberg said. “Now we’re at $60 million with a lot of life left in us.”

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