×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Radius-TWC Chief on ‘Citizenfour’: ‘It’s Going to Get Heated’

Citizenfour” rode the national debate over Edward Snowden to a smashing debut at the art house box office this weekend, positioning itself as one of the year’s few documentary success stories.

The intimate account of the computer analyst’s decision to blow the whistle on widespread surveillance by the National Security Agency premiered to a sterling $125,172 from just five theaters. That amounts to a per-screen average of $25,034 — a massive number for a documentary.

“It’s an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful and persuasive overview of what’s happening in government, in the halls of the NSA and within our own pursuit of liberty,” said Tom Quinn, co-president of the film’s distributor, Radius-TWC.

“It’s living, breathing history,” he added. “It would be as if Woodward and Bernstein had a camera when they were talking to Deep Throat.”

Empowered by its initial success, the film will quickly broaden its footprint beyond New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Next weekend it will show in at least 14 theaters and will begin screening in cities such as Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago. Over the next four weeks it will expand nationally, Quinn said.

“I’m going to be getting a lot of calls [from exhibitors] on Monday,” said Quinn. “We think this film is going to play beyond the top 25 media markets and it’s going to play to younger audiences as well.”

In order to catch on, “Citizenfour” will need to capture the popular consciousness in a way that few documentaries manage. “Fahrenheit 9/11” capitalized on liberal disenchantment with the Bush administration to make $119 million domestically, while “2016: Obama’s America” benefited from conservative outrage over Barack Obama’s presidency to the tune of $33.4 million. From there the list of documentaries that broke out is sparse. It includes films like “Never Say Never” and “March of the Penguins” that boasted either Justin Bieber or cute animals. Thought-provoking they were not.

“Documentaries are definitely a tough sell,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “For a documentary to do $1 million is like a big budget film doing $100 million. It’s exceedingly rare.”

Radius-TWC had a hit last year with “20 Feet From Stardom,” which grossed almost $5 million, but even politically charged documentaries such as “The Act of Killing” were unable to crack the $1 million mark.

There are a number of things working in “Citizenfour’s” favor. The film has drawn critical raves, with reviewers such as Grantland’s Wesley Morris and the New York Times’ A.O. Scott lauding director Laura Poitras for crafting a fact-based document that plays like one of the great paranoid thrillers from the 1970s such as “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men.” The film follows Snowden as he divulges reams of information to Poitras and fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald about massive data monitoring being undertaken by the U.S. government. In his review, Morris enthused that “it’s hard to overstate the film’s achievement.”

At the Produced By: New York conference this weekend, Harvey Weinstein, whose corporate home The Weinstein Company owns Radius-TWC, said the film had changed his opinion about Snowden. The indie entrepreneur had previously called the whistleblower a traitor.

Radius-TWC has had a number of on-demand hits such as last summer’s “Snowpiercer,” but they opted to do a traditional theatrical release for “Citizenfour.” Participant Media, which has turned hot-button documentaries like “Food Inc” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” into water cooler conversation starters, financed the film. The partners are betting that the picture will generate Oscar buzz and prompt people to re-evaluate Snowden, much as it caused Weinstein to shift his position.

“We think that it’s an empowering film that’s going to lead to a lot of conversations,” said Quinn.

Like “Waiting for Superman,” a documentary that was a box office hit because it launched a broader debate on school reform, “Citizenfour” seems poised to become an op-ed page staple. “Waiting for Superman” was one of the last documentaries that averaged more than $25,000 per-screen, a good harbinger for “Citizenfour.”

“In a way, this is a much bigger topic and everyone has an opinion on it,” said Quinn. “I think it’s going to be controversial, it’s going to get heated, and I can’t wait.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Jon Voight'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' film

    President Trump to Award Jon Voight the National Medal of Arts

    President Trump will present actor Jon Voight, musician Allison Krauss, and mystery writer James Patterson with the national medal of arts. Voight is one of few in Hollywood who has been vocal about his support of President Trump in the past, calling him “the greatest president of this century.” The White House announced four recipients [...]

  • Zack Snyder arrives at the 2018

    'Justice League': Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, Zack Snyder Support Release of 'Snyder Cut'

    Zack Snyder, Gal Gadot, and Ben Affleck have taken to social media to request that Warner Bros. release the Snyder cut of “Justice League.” Snyder, who helmed “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman” and was “Justice League’s” original director, had to leave production on the film partway through after his daughter died, with Joss [...]

  • Whose Side Is 'Marriage Story' On?

    Whose Side Is 'Marriage Story' On? (Column)

    Do we choose sides when we watch “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach’s brilliant and wrenching drama of divorce? The question, on the face of it, sounds facile in a dozen ways the movie isn’t. Rarely are there winners in divorce, and there are two sides to every breakup. “Marriage Story” is a movie that reflects that [...]

  • The Letter

    IDFA: Kenyan Documentary ‘The Letter’ Debuts Trailer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given access to the trailer for Kenyan documentary “The Letter,” by producer-director duo Christopher King and Maia Lekow, which world premieres Nov. 23 at IDFA. The film follows a young man who travels to his grandmother’s rural home when he learns she’s been accused of witchcraft. He soon discovers that the threatening letter she [...]

  • Warner Bros. Box Office

    With 'Good Liar' and 'Doctor Sleep,' Warner Bros.' Box Office Misfortunes Mount

    When Warner Bros. was crafting its 2019 slate, the studio took pains to offer more than just superhero movies. To be sure, there were lots of masked vigilantes too, but more than any of its big studio brethren, Warner Bros. was willing to take a risk on the kinds of thrillers, adult dramas, coming-of-age stories, [...]

  • Constance Wu

    Will Constance Wu Ever Watch 'Hustlers'?

    Despite her leading role, Constance Wu has never seen “Hustlers” and, spoiler alert, it’s very unlikely that she will. Wu explained why she doesn’t want to watch the film to Mindy Kaling (“Late Night”) during a conversation for “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.” “This is crazy,” Kaling said in the beginning of the interview. “I [...]

  • Ford v Ferrari

    'Ford v Ferrari' Outmatches 'Charlie's Angels' at International Box Office

    Disney and 20th Century Fox’s “Ford v Ferrari” sped ahead of fellow new release, Sony’s “Charlie’s Angels,” at the international box office. Director James Mangold’s racing drama collected $21.4 million from 41 foreign markets, representing 67% of its overseas rollout. “Ford v Ferrari” also kicked off with $31 million in North America, bringing its global [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content