Can “Fahrenheit 9/11” Set the World on Fire, in Politics and Box Office?
by Anthony Kaufman
“Fahrenheit 9/11” is coming to a country near you.
If American moviegoers proved last weekend they were open to some healthy Bush-bashing, just imagine what the rest of the world will bring. “Fahrenheit 9/11” begins its global rollout a week from today (July 7), opening in Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, and Switzerland, followed Friday, July 9, with releases in the U.K., Brazil and Israel. With Dubya’s reputation on the world stage at rock bottom and a buzz about the movie that has reached as far as Qatar, “Fahrenheit 9/11” is poised to be an international blockbuster.
On the day of the film’s U.S. release, foreign newspapers published snippets from North American critics as a preview of what was to come with headlines such as “U.S. critics laud Moore film” (Chinese news agency Xinhua) and “US critics find Michael Moore‘s anti-Bush missive entertaining and persuasive, even must-see cinema” (The Guardian). Last Friday, French paper Le Figaro published a headline that needed no translation, “Fahrenheit 9/11 mobilise les anti-Bush.” And on Sunday, Germany’s Der Spiegel reported, “Anti-Bush film: Giant Success for Fahrenheit 9/11,” followed Monday by a lengthy feature about the documentary wave, headed by the pudgy, populist and leftist hero. Welcome to “Fahrenheit” global fever.
If “Bowling for Columbine” — Moore’s scathing examination of America’s culture of violence — was one of the most successful documentary releases in the world, earning approximately $36.5 million outside of the United States (more than one and a half times the $21.5 million it made at home), “Fahrenheit 9/11” reaches farther and wider, with its topical indictments of the Bush administration and a war that has gripped the entire globe.
Back in February 2003 during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, 6 to 10 million people reportedly protested against America’s imminent attack, with some of the largest turnouts coming from Bush’s would-be “coalition of the willing”; in the U.K., Spain and Italy, some 1 million people marched from each country. Over the next few months, many of those same protestors will make their voice heard at the box office.
The recent stellar success of “Fahrenheit” in the U.S. should only fuel foreign admissions further. “The German media is [taking note] of the great success of ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ in the U.S.,” says Nicola Giesa, a PR rep for Falcom Media, the German distributor which will release the film on July 29 on 200 screens. “At the moment there are no plans to increase the number of screens for the release in Germany, as 200 is already a huge amount (the maximum size of a documentary release ever),” she explains. “But we will see within the next two to three weeks how things develop.” (Germany was one of “Bowling for Columbine’s” biggest supporters, as the country’s previous documentary record-holder with 1.45 million ticket buyers.)
Not only will “Fahrenheit 9/11” mark the largest release for a documentary abroad, but it also stands to rival Hollywood’s domination of foreign markets. In France, for example, where the film is already a “cause celebre” after winning Cannes‘ Palme d’Or, StudioCanal‘s arthouse distrib Mars Distribution will release the film on 200-250 screens. One of the widest openers for a non-fiction film in France, “Fahrenheit” is poised to trounce such Hollywood rivals next week as “The Stepford Wives” and “Walking Tall.”
When Spain’s leading arthouse distributor Alta Films releases “Fahrenheit 9/11” with 160 prints on July 23, again the largest documentary opener for the nation, it will face stiff competition from “Kill Bill: Vol. 2.” and “Around the World in 80 Days.” But Alta Films’ acquisitions head Enrique Gonzalez Kuhn says, “I think the film is very big for Spain because 70 percent of the Spanish [people] didn’t want the war, but our old president sent soldiers to Iraq. The press is very big here.” Like many of the foreign distributors handling “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Alta Films also released Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” but on just 30 to 40 screens.
While foreign journalists are jumping on the “Fahrenheit 9/11” bandwagon, wondering whether the film could lead to regime change in the U.S. this fall, they’re also suggesting the film’s potential political sway on their own countries, as well. On Monday, after “Fahrenheit” averaged CDN$40,000 per venue and sold out shows on roughly 70 screens across Canada, the country’s Liberal Party, headed by Prime Minister Paul Martin, won a closely contested election. While it’s impossible to say whether “Fahrenheit 9/11” impacted the race, Michael Moore denounced Canada’s Conservative challenger Steven Harper in the Toronto Star last week. “(Harper) has a big pair of scissors in his hand. He wants to snip away at your social safety net,” he told the Star’s Peter Howell. “He’d like this to be the 51st State.”
In the U.K., where a majority of Brits have criticized Tony Blair’s participation in the Iraq war and his Labour party suffered a severe defeat in recent elections. Indie distrib Optimum Releasing (“Elephant,” “American Splendor”) will release “Fahrenheit” on about 100 screens, with previews taking place on July 4th, critical support coming in strong, and a 15 rating from the British Board of Film Classification (meaning younger ticket-buyers, unlike in the U.S., can see the film without a parent).
Another strong U.S. ally, Australia, is seizing on “Fahrenheit 9/11” as a political lightning rod. According to Australian paper The Age, the film’s distributor Hopscotch — which will release the film on July 29 in 60 to 70 cinemas — received threatening emails from anti-Moore activists. Melbourne International Film Festival director James Hewison, which will host the Australian premiere of the film, suggested to the newspaper that the film could sharpen the attack against the country’s conservative prime minister and Bush supporter John Howard, who is up for reelection this year.
Perhaps the most contentious territory to see prints of “Fahrenheit 9/11” will be the Middle East, where it will be the first documentary to be theatrically released in the region. (“Bowling for Columbine” went straight to video.) According to Screen Daily, United Arab Emirates-based distributor Front Row Entertainment will release the film on July 14 in the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and in Egypt on July 20. Front Row’s poster, which is reprinted in Screen, tweaks Moore’s originally intended tagline: “The Temperature at Which Truth Burns” to read the far more critical “The Temperature Where Freedom Burns.”
Seized upon by anti-Moore websites, the Screen Daily story also alleges that the film’s Middle East release is getting support from “organizations related to Hezbollah,” the radical Islamic group. “We can’t go against these organizations as they could strongly boycott the film in Lebanon and Syria,” Front Row’s managing director Gianluca Chacra told Screen. Chacra also told the trade he thinks the film “is going to be big but I don’t know how big. It could be a blockbuster,” comparing the film to another recent local success of slightly differing politics, “The Passion of the Christ.”