“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.”