Thanks to Conor Friedersdorf, we know that the midnight screening of "The Undefeated" in Orange County, Calif., did not draw much of a crowd -- Conor was the only one there throughout the film. But that's just one show, in one market. How did the Sarah Palin film fare overall in its opening weekend?
According to the filmmaker, Steve Bannon, the movie screened in 10 markets and averaged about $7,500 per screen over the weekend for a gross of $75,000. [Update: Official number is $65,132 gross, or 6,513 per screen] Bannon called this "a strong opening." A press release from ARC Entertainment, the film's distributor, touted a "stronger opening than expected" (an odd phrase--were they expecting it to tank?). Seeking an objective judgment, I turned to Gabriel Snyder, editor of the Atlantic Wire, who happens to have deep expertise on precisely this subject: he used to be Variety's box-office reporter. Here's what he had to say:
A $7,500 per screen average is not a number that anyone should brag about. The way these sorts of brags go, distributors open a movie in some of the highest grossing theaters in the country -- in markets like New York, L.A., etc. -- where a $10,000-plus weekend is typical. Of course, the only place to go from there is the lesser houses in smaller markets, but for that weekend when you are playing a movie in just a handful of theaters, the high per screen average creates a sense of potential and wonder.
For comparison purposes, "Fahrenheit 9/11" (which I covered extensively and was, along with "The Passion," a beautiful marriage of movie marketing and GOTV campaign strategy) posted a $27,558 per screen average on its first weekend on a pretty high 868 screens.
For a more analogous example (in distribution strategy, not content), the David O. Russell movie "I Heart Huckabees" (which had nothing to do with Republican politics) opened with great fanfare to a $73,044 per screen average on four screens, leading to all sorts of predictions that it was going to be a HUGE box office hit. Once it left the cherry-picked first four theaters, its performance plummeted, ultimately grossing a forgettable (to us, not to David O. Russell) $12.8 million.
So, while high opening weekend per screen averages are often touted, they are a) highly correlated with the size of the specific markets they measure, b) a high-water mark in a film's theatrical life: usually there is nowhere to go but down and c) not terribly impressive unless they are somewhere north of $50,000.
So there you have it. I'd point out a couple of things. First, "The Undefeated" had the great misfortune of opening against "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2," which smashed the box-office record for most lucrative opening weekend of all time. Second, Bannon says there was no traditional publicity and advertising campaign to support the movie; they relied on social media and word of mouth. And third, the distributor says "The Undefeated" will soon open in more markets.
Snyder's point about how documentaries usually have nowhere to go but down is well taken, and the Palin film could certainly follow that path. On the other hand, the political nature of the film suggests to me that it could conceivably perform in a way that confounds those expectations. Recently, I read a piece about political documentaries (wish I could remember where and link to it!) that pointed out that they often fare as well or better in areas where the prevailing political opinion runs counter to that of the film--I believe the example was a documentary on intelligent design that did well in liberal cities like New York and San Francisco. Would liberals turn out to see a Palin film, even if only to jeer it? Maybe we'll find out.
Of course, there's one other factor that could conceivably send people stampeding to the theater to see the film. But at least for now, it doesn't look like Sarah Palin is about to announce a bid for the presidency.