Michael Moore’s trump card failed him this weekend.
“Fahrenheit 11/9,” Moore’s satirical takedown of President Trump and the current political landscape in America, picked up an abysmal $3.1 million when it opened 1,719 venues. It was the best start for the left-wing filmmaker since 2009’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” but it’s a far cry from 2004, when Moore’s doc “Fahrenheit 9/11” launched with a record-breaking $23 million. At this point, “Fahrenheit 11/9” will be lucky if it matches the opening weekend of “Fahrenheit 9/11” during the course of its run.
To quote Moore: “How the f— did this happen?”
To be fair, nobody expected the same kind of result this go-round. “Fahrenheit 9/11,” still the highest grossing documentary of all time, was the rare feature to tap into the zeitgeist and spark a national conversation about the Bush administration and the war on terror. When “Bowling for Columbine” came out in 2002, it was at the forefront of the debate around gun control in America. But as Moore even points out in his latest documentary, cable news has turned into a seemingly never-ending Trump fest. It’s hard to have an impact when audiences are already tired of the subject. Why are they going to shell out for a political screed on a big screen when they can just channel surf between CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News with much the same payoff?
That sense of Trump fatigue is cause for concern at the box office. Broadcast networks might be reveling in the ratings spike that comes from the chaos that swirls around the current administration and book publishers are also getting a boost from all the Trump takedowns, but multiplexes aren’t enjoying the same benefits.
“Theaters have always been about escapism, and since potential audiences are constantly bombarded with the he said/she said of politics right now, ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ just comes off as more noise,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations.
And yet, other documentaries are having a moment this year. “RBG,” the feature on Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Fred Rogers’ pic “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and “Three Identical Strangers,” which follows triplets who were separated at birth, accomplished a rare feat with each racking up double digits. It definitely helped that those uplifting titles all served up some much-needed entertaining subjects for these dreary times.
While “Fahrenheit 11/9” posted one of the best starts for a political documentary in recent years, its ambitious expansion might hurt its box office potential. Most documentaries would rank a million-dollar haul as a roaring success, but then again, most documentaries don’t initially open in over 1,700 theaters. “Fahrenheit 11/9” also carried a bigger marketing budget than the typical doc given its TV ads and promotional materials.
Briarcliff’s head of distribution Steve Bunnell said the studio opted to start with a wide release to coincide with the upcoming midterm elections in November. The doc played strongest on the coasts (the best per-screen averages were cities in California and New York, areas where the “resistance” is in full force), though Bunnell noted that many red state markets also were well represented.
“With the midterms right around the corner, a wide release was the right call,” Bunnell said. “We’re going to be playing through this corridor very strongly.”
Those who did venture to the theater to see “Fahrenheit 11/9” didn’t reject it. It holds an 80% average on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as an A CinemaScore. The last political doc to open nationwide was Dinesh D’Souza’s “Death of a Nation,” a pro-Trump documentary that blames fascism and white supremacy on Democrats and compares Trump to Abraham Lincoln. It generated a doleful 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not an easy time to be banking on the president.
“When ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ came out, Michael Moore led the discussion,” said Bock. “With ‘Fahrenheit 11/9,’ he is merely echoing it. That’s a big difference.”