Moviegoers Defy Critics by Watching Palin's Reviled Documentary

The distributors plan plan for wider national expansion

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Expectations were not high for The Undefeated, a documentary about Sarah Palin by Stephen K. Bannon that lovingly chronicles her tenure as governor of Alaska and her time spent as John McCain's running mate. But even taking that into account, reviews for the documentary, which premiered this weekend, were shockingly, almost magnificently terrible. It's rating on Rotten Tomatoes is currently at 0 percent. It's IMDB user rating is 1.5 out of 10! And just take a look at what some of the critics have been saying.

David Edelstein of New York Magazine reviewed:

I swear I gave The Undefeated a chance, because who wants to writhe in agony for two hours? ...But it’s a straight hagiography, without nuance or ambiguity or the admission of opposing viewpoints, even those meant to be dismantled.

And that was one of the nicer perspectives! Robert Abeles of the Los Angeles Times reviewed is as:

A troop-rallying campaign infomercial as imagined by Michael Bay: hero-worshipping, crescendo-edited at a dizzying pace, thunderously repetitive and its own worst enemy as a two-hour, talking-points briefing.

That's just the beginning! Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel wrote that the film "plays like an infomercial. And as such, it's an infomercial of almost comical omissions." Alison Willmore of the AV Club wrote that "It's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anyone who isn't already a devoted Palinite seeking out or sitting through The Undefeated." And Roger Levin of The Atlantic makes a point to show that criticism of the film is unrelated to criticism of its subject:

There’s nothing implicitly wrong with the picture’s message, or the overarching notion that the world needs a counterpunch to the anti-Palin fervor that’s gripped much of the mainstream media not owned by Rupert Murdoch... This Sarah Palin hosanna is done in by the simple fact that its director needs to go back to film school.

With reviews like these, who actually went to see the Palin documentary? Did anyone? Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf recounts his experience of watching the documentary in an empty theater in Orange Country (empty except for two young women, who didn't know what the film was about, and left 20 minutes in). Afterwards he spoke to a theater manager:

"Did anyone pay and not show up?" He said that they'd sold out all the Harry Potter movies until 2 a.m., and that all 5,000 seats looked full. "No," I said, "I saw the Sarah Palin movie. Do you know the figures for that one?"

"Oh," he said, "I can't release sales figures."

"In hindsight, do you wish you'd had one more screen showing Harry Potter?"

He had no comment. 

But this inauspicious beginning aside, Indiewire is reporting that, against all expectations, the Palin documentary had a "respectable debut." Peter Knegt writes:

ARC Entertainment did not respond to indieWIRE‘s request for final weekend estimates, but they did say that the film had accumulated approximately $5,000 per screen through Saturday night... That suggests the film (released on 10 screens in conservative cities and small towns)... would end up with a weekend gross in the $65-75,000 range, averaging a decent (but definitely unspectacular) $6,500-$7,500.

Good for the film! Though to put it in context, that average is not exactly a flood of money. For example, Mel Gibson's film The Beaver had a per screen average of only $4,745 per theater on its debut, and was considered a massive box office failure. But that movie had far more publicity, big stars, strong reviews, and high expectations. The CEO of ARC Entertainment, The Undefeated's distributor, seemed seriously thrilled with the results:

“We are extremely pleased with the audience reaction, which has been over-the-top enthusiastic and very passionate, including standing ovations at most screenings,” said Trevor Drinkwater, CEO of ARC Entertainment, the film’s distributor. “We expect word-of-mouth to keep ticket sales strong and we will definitely expand the film to a wider national audience.”

Drinkwater also "made sure not to seem bothered by the bad reviews," according to Indiewire. “The demographic we see for this film isn’t likely to be listening to the critics,” he said. Sounds like they have that much in common with the film's subject.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.