Fahrenheit 9/11 vs. The Passion


There has been a lot of hoopla around Fahrenheit 9/11,Michael Moore’s new movie released this weekend. The Monday morning press has consistently touted ” highest grossing documentary of all time”, which is true. But how did it do as a movie in general? Not all that great.

The reason it is doing as well as it is because of the controversy surrounding it. Which immediately made me think of another movie that came out this year and was surrounded with controversy, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. While the subject of these films is dramatically different, they have many things in common from a movie business perspective.

Both are small budget independent films.The Passion was made for $30 million and F911 for $6 million. Compare that to the last Harry Potter film ($130 million) or Shrek 2 ($70 million), which was animated. Neither were commissioned by a major studio.

Both had trouble finding a distributor because of the subject of the film. Disney wouldn’t let Miramax distribute F911. The Passion struggled to find someone to risk a religious, controversial and violent film.

Both were all over the news before release. In the case of the Passion, the controversy was the portrayal of Jews in the film, with Jewish groups saying Mel Gibson was anti-Semitic. F911 is a direct attack on the President of the United States, making many claims critics say aren’t true.

Both brought out a different crowd than you average movie goer The people who went to see the Passion were not your normal movie going public. Marketing to churches and Christian groups brought in people who never go to the movies. F911 is similar. Many people who don’t normally go see movies will see F911 because they agree ideologically with Moore and hate the President.

Both opened to little competition. The Passion actually opened on Ash Wenesday, but had only 50 First Dates and Twisted as competition. F911 opened against White Chicks and Dodgeball, neither highly anticipated films. If Moore had waited till next weekend he’d have been opening against Spiderman 2, and wouldn’t have even been noticed.

Now that we see the similarities, let’s compare performance and make some predictions.

Per theater gross doesn’t tell the whole story. As Box Office Mojo points out F911 had the highest per theater gross of any film, including the Passion. They also point out this was because it was in so few theaters, the incredibly low 309. Many of these theaters were throughly behind the film and showed it on every screen, helping the per theater average. Few if any of the Passion’s theaters did the same.

$23.9 million isn’t that much. Everyone is making a big point of the $23.9 million. That’s pretty good on 309 screens. Its paltry in comparison to even an cheese ball comedy like Dodgeball, which opened last weekend for $30 million. Nothing compared to the last left-slanted ideologically controversial film Day After Tommorrow, whose opening weekend was $68.7 million.

The Passion opened for $83.8 million its first weekend. And stayed #1 for 3 weeks, every week making more than Moore.
Just as an aside, the Passion made $23,567 last week on 90 screens.

Now for some predictions. When F911 won Cannes I predicted three things, it would open at #1 in the US, it would win an Academy Award for best documentary, and it wouldn’t do as well as the Passion. We’ll have to wait till the end of the year so see what the academy has to say, but the other two have already come true.

Next weekend is one of the biggest movie weekends of the year, and Moore’s movie will be engulfed by Spiderman 2. Will it hold on to #2? Maybe. A quick look at the movies willing to take on Spiderman doesn’t show much competition, and it is a big weekend for movies.

So my prediction is a quick decent out of the theaters for F911. If the number of theaters it is in now is not the result of no one wanting the film. If it was an intentional move to generate buzz before a bigger release, all bets are off on my box office predictions. But I don’t think that’s the plan because Moore has already announced the DVD will be out in September. Which sure means he doesn’t expect his film to be big in theaters then. He’s already said he’s releasing the DVD then because he wants to influence the election. Look for strong sales of the DVD as political groups buy lots of them and give them away.

If Bush wins in November Moore’s film will be quickly forgotten. If he loses, it will be remembered as a foot note in history books. Either way no one will be watching this film in a year.

Lastly a couple of predictions about the Passion. Despite Hollywood’s love for independent films, the Passion won’t be nominated for any Academy Awards. DVD sales of the Passion will be many times F911’s. People will be buying the Passion for decades. While political groups will buy lots of F911 DVDs to give away, Christians will buy more Passion DVDs for the same purpose. In the end Christians care more about people getting saved than Moore ideologues care about defeating Bush and the Christian’s mission will continue long after November. (And who knows some of these two groups may overlap).