Political season hits its peak

Polarizing films play big at box office

In 2004, the year of the last presidential election, Michael Moore’s Bush administration takedown “Fahrenheit 9/11” went on to become the highest-grossing docu of all time, proving that timing is everything.

Now here comes “W.”

Whether or not Oliver Stone’s fictionalized pic plays to the masses, it exemplifies the recent trend of polarizing movies that are bubbling to the surface as the nation gets ready to elect a new president amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. If “W” is going to work, it’ll have to perform well in prospective Obama states.

Over the weekend, the left beat out the right as Bill Maher’s irreverent docu “Religulous” opened to three times the per-screen average that Michael Moore sendup “An American Carol” did ($6,792 vs. $2,231).

But the B.O. scene isn’t all left-leaning: Christian-themed “Fireproof,” starring former “Growing Pains” star turned evangelist Kirk Cameron, has done far better than anyone expected. Values are always a partisan issue during a presidential contest, and “Fireproof” feeds a certain appetite.

And Billy Graham biopic “Billy: The Early Years,” starring Armie Hammer, Martin Landau and Lindsay Wagner, goes out in 300-plus theaters on Friday. Film is being released by Christian distrib Rocky Mountain Pictures.

Voting at the B.O.

Lionsgate is hoping that Stone’s “W” will be a galvanizing force when it opens nationwide on Oct. 17. (Lionsgate also released “Religulous” and “Fahrenheit 9/11”).

Lionsgate decided to release the film now because Americans are stirred up as the election nears. “Because we are in a politically charged season, I think people will view ‘W’ as a chance to vote with their box office dollars three weeks before they vote at the actual ballot box,” Lionsgate prexy of theatrical films Tom Ortenberg said. “I don’t think that political films shape public opinion, but I do think they often reflect public opinion. They become a mirror.”

Put another way, the success of a political film, be it from the left or the right, depends upon how well it serves its constituents.

“Seeing a movie like ‘W’ defines our emotions,” said one distrib. “It becomes satire.”

Head to head

Vivendi’s “American Carol” grossed $3.7 million from 1,639 screens, while “Religulous” bowed to $3.4 million from 503.

Regional box office breakdowns for the two pics are a lesson in the partisan divide.

The Maher docu overperformed expectations in the Northeast and slightly overperformed in the West, while it underwhelmed in the Midwest, South and Southeast.

“Religulous” drew crowds in the very states in which Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is polling well. According to RealClearPolitics.com, an independent political website that culls and publishes a broad sampling of polling data, Obama enjoys a lead over John McCain in California, Oregon, Washington, all of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.

It was the polar opposite for “American Carol,” which rips left-wing politics. The film overperformed in the Midwest, South and Southeast, home to some of the states where McCain commands a lead, including Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and the Dakotas.

But it isn’t just a Red State-Blue State divide. Big cities generally have a liberal population, which plays into the hands of left-leaning pics like “Religulous” and “W.” One theater in Salt Lake City saw big results for “Religulous.”

The presidential election has proved fertile ground for studio marketers.

“American Carol” helmer David Zucker and stars Kelsey Grammer and Jon Voight have been plugging the film, with Voight and Zucker popping up at the recent Republican Convention, and Grammer appearing on right-skewing political talkshows like Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor.”

By contrast, Maher has plugged “Religulous” on such liberal-minded shows as “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and his own HBO series “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

Last week, Lionsgate bought ad time during the debates for both “W” and “Religulous.”

Vivendi declined comment on its marketing campaign for the film.