Quantifying if a movie is a hit or not is a trickier task than one might expect. Surely just looking at box office receipts should give one a sense if people are coming out to see one’s film or not. But that’s not always the case.
Take for instance the release of director Stephen Bannon’s Sarah Palin love letter cum documentary The Undefeated this past weekend. It premiered on 10 screens around the country this past weekend and its distributor stated that it took in somewhere between $60,000 and $75,000 in ticket sales. The film’s distributor crowed these numbers in a press release which went on to quote Bannon as saying, “to characterize [The Undefeated] as anything less than a hit would be a mistake.”
The press release also stated that this weekend’s box office for the film could have even been much higher except for a list of reasons that pinned the blame on too small theaters that had to turn people away and minimal marketing.
Now, the practice of spinning box office results started about five minutes after the first tickets were sold to the very first movie screening ever, so it’s not surprising that the producers are putting a brave face on their numbers. But if you take a hard look at those figures, one will see that the films weekend ticket sales were nothing more than just plain average.
Breaking down their stated box office numbers, we see that The Undefeated averaged a weekend take of $6,750 per screen if we go by what the producers’ press release would have us believe. The folks at Box Office Mojo have reported an actual box office total of $65,132, or a per screen average of $6,513.
This is not an exceptionally impressive number when $10,000 to $20,000 is considered more the norm for small release films. For example, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, a Bollywood film that opened this weekend on 100 screens pulled a per screen average of $9,605 while Errol Morris’s new documentary Tabloid opened on 14 screens and beat out The Undefeated by a $1 a screen with an average of $6,514. But all of these limited release films were dusted by Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, a documentary about the writer whose short stories were the basis for the musical Fiddler On The Roof which averaged an impressive $20,998 on the one screen it is showing in its second week of release.
But outside of documentary juggernaut Michael Moore, partisan political films seldom do well at the box office. Ben Stem’s argument in support of intelligent design, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, averaged $2,824 per screen when it opened on 1,052 screens. An American Carol, a satirical comedy from Airplane! co-creator David Zucker fared a little worse, earning just $2,325 on each of the 1,639 screens it opened. Atlas Shrugged Part 1, based on the novel by conservative author Ayn Rand, fared a bit better when it averaged about $5,600 per screen during its 300 screen release.At best, it could be stated that The Undefeated is a hit compared against these bigger hard-Right leaning films released in the last several years. But since neither of them really lit the box office on fire, it is not much of an accomplishment.
Suppose though, we do accept the producers word that the film is a hit. Why do they feel they need to then downplay their own box office numbers by saying that they could have been higher, especially when their proposed excuses are so laughably transparent? The idea that crowds were being turned away due to venues being sold out is at best anecdotal and certainly not quantifiable. How many were turned away? Four? Forty? Four hundred? We know that at at least one screening at the Orange, CA theater there were exactly three paid admissions – one blogger who then reported the poor attendance and two young women who thought they were buying tickets to an action movie and walked out after 20 minutes.
It is also hard to credit that there was a lack of awareness of the film as its premier was covered extensively on all the major cable news networks, much in the same way that just about anything the film’s subject does is covered.
It remains to be seen how much longevity the film will have at the box office. The film will be opening in 14 more markets this coming weekend, though they are primarily in the south and southwest. (Still nothing for the mid-Atlantic and New England states.) Presumably, the film’s distributor ARC Entertainment will be getting it into even more markets over the next several weeks. But will it bring out crowds to pay what they could very well see for free on the FOX News channel? Even the fiercely conservative film critic Kyle Smith of the New York Post called the film a “hopless, sputtering jumble” and observed that “The busted logic and narrative chop of The Undefeated don’t suggest the phrase, ‘spirited new defense of Palin.’ They say, ‘cyclone landed here.'”
And if you can’t even preach to the converted, who is going to listen?