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‘Chappaquiddick’ Bets Political Controversy Will Boost Box Office

Chappaquiddick TIFF
Courtesy of AccuSoft Inc./TIFF

Are audiences experiencing scandal fatigue?

With the news dominated by various Trump-related controversies and squabbles, John Curran’s upcoming drama “Chappaquiddick,” which centers on failed presidential contender and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, is trying to convince consumers to break away from the cable news chyrons to immerse themselves in a different kind of political cause celebre.

The Entertainment Studios’ film, which opens on Friday, recounts a fatal car accident on Chappaquiddick Island that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and effectively ended Kennedy’s White House aspirations. The senator had been driving Kopechne home from a party on Martha’s Vineyard when his car plunged off a bridge and into the water. He was criticized for leaving the scene and waiting 10 hours to report the crash.

Kennedy died in 2009, but loyalists, such as former aide Bob Shrum, have harshly criticized the film, claiming it traffics in conspiracy theories. The film seems poised to divide people along political lines — earning praise from those on the right who disliked Kennedy, while being dismissed by those on the left who idolize him as a liberal lion.

Byron Allen, founder of Entertainment Studios, said the film isn’t out to score points with Fox News commentators. It’s interested in pulling back the curtain on what he says was a cover-up and a shoddy investigation of Kopechne’s death.

“We’re not about the right and we’re not about the left,” Allen said. “We’re about the truth. The story has a political undertone. It happened to be Sen. Ted Kennedy, but if it happened to Dr. Ted Kennedy it would still be a fascinating story.”

Of course, the very mention of the 1969 incident at Chappaquiddick may draw some blank stares. It’s a 50-year old scandal that grows more remote and obscure with time — one that  has little resonance for a generation weaned on Monica Lewinsky’s dress and Russian collusion. The film is currently on track to open with a soft $2.5 million, though it could make up to $4 million.

“I think the political aspect will drive people away,” Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, said. “They get too much of that in their life.”

Some recent politically charged films, such as “The Post” and “Darkest Hour,” have managed to find a niche and profit. However, Bock pointed to the misstep of “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s summer crime drama based on the another historic event, the 1967 Detroit riot. The film topped out at $16.8 million, failing to recoup its $34 million production budget.

“Chappaquiddick” — starring Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, and Taylor Nichols —  does have one important thing going for it. The reviews have been strong. Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman praised the film writing,”‘Chappaquiddick’ is exactly what you want it to be: a tense, scrupulous, absorbingly precise and authentic piece of history.” And Gleiberman isn’t alone. “Chappaquiddick” currently holds a healthy 78% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

But strong reviews may not be enough. The film faces tough competition from two new releases, “Blockers” and “A Quiet Place,” both of which are on pace to enjoy big openings.

Allen says the quality of the film will help it rise to the top. He also notes that “Chappaquiddick” is designed to appeal to audiences over the age of 45. Older crowds don’t always show up on opening weekend, but they tend to find films during their runs. Importantly, it’s not a demographic that’s likely to turn out for the raunchy “Blockers” or the horror-infused “A Quiet Place.”

“We will have strong legs,” predicts Allen. “We’re after a seriously under-served audience.”

Allen also welcomes the controversy that’s surrounding the film, and he doesn’t mind if “Chappaquiddick” becomes a staple of op-ed pages and media think pieces.

“Whenever you’re a part of the conversation, it’s a good thing,” Allen said.