By Indiewire | Indiewire June 28, 2004 at 2:0AM
"Fahrenheit 9/11" Opens Big in U.S. with Estimated $21.8 Million
by Eugene Hernandez
With sold-out shows in numerous theaters Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" exceeded industry expectations and topped the weekend box office with an estimated $21.8 million and a huge $25,000 per screen average on 868 screens. Final numbers are due today and the film will likely top the entire $21.5 million "Bowling for Columbine" theatrical gross, after just a few days in release. During a conference call with journalists Sunday, Michael Moore, Lions Gate's Tom Ortenberg, and IFC's Jonathan Sehring talked about the opening weekend and confirmed that the film will expand to more theaters in the coming days.
"These are mind-blowing numbers," Moore said during the call yesterday, "All of the predictions that the movie would only speak to the choir, would only be for those who don't like Bush, I don't think have turned out to be true."
Some industry insiders had anticipated much lower numbers for the film's debut weekend. Citing competing distributors, industry trade paper Variety predicted a $10 million opening weekend. indieWIRE's quick survey of a few indie film insiders offered a range of guesses from $15 million up to $21 million.
"(We had the) number one gross is virtually every, and possibly every, theater we were in," Ortenberg said Sunday, adding that this was the largest opening ever for any documentary of any type. "There isn't one theater that didn't do really, really well -- (we did) extremely well in every single theater we are in."
Moore, clearly delighted by the success of his new film, explained that he snuck into a screening of the film on the Upper West Side of Manhattan Friday, only to be noticed by patrons who began applauding during the screening. On Sunday, Moore stopped in at another Manhattan venue, greeting fans and chatting with local media.
"It became part of the national conversation this weekend," Moore proclaimed during Sunday's phone call.
Including the record-setting grosses earned in multiple sold-out showings at two New York theaters on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, "Fahrenheit" has made about $22 million in its first five days of release, already making it the top documentary film of all time (excluding performance/concert films, IMAX movies, and of course, the reality hit "Jackass").
"The film played brilliantly in the red states and in the blue states, in the big towns and the small towns," boasted Lions Gate Films Releasing president Tom Ortenberg on Sunday, referencing success in states that went to both Republicans and Democrats in the last Presidential election. "We literally sold out Peoria, IL and Fayetteville, NC." he added, I take my hat off to Michael Moore.
Ortenberg and Sehring told indieWIRE that they plan to add as many as a couple hundred new theaters for the expansion of the film on June 30th and July 9th.
Just as in many theaters across the country, large crowds gathered to see the movie in Times Square on Friday night. Venue staff at the AMC Empire 25 theaters on 42nd St. seemed overwhelmed by the crowds that arrived early and gathered in the walkways outside theaters. A projectionist at the venue told indieWIRE Friday night that the theater was adding additional screenings after midnight to accommodate the demand for the film.
The "Fahrenheit" audience at the Empire 25 was a young, diverse one, characteristic of Times Square but perhaps a surprise to theater staff. Just before midnight on Friday a large crowd formed for a late showing and one attendee, a concerned African-American man in his twenties (wearing a loose basketball jersey and sporting dreadlocks) stepped out of the long, winding line to ask a theater staffer, "Are we all going to fit into this theater?"
"Are you here for 'White Chicks'?" the usher asked the customer flatly, to which the ticket-holder responded, "No man, I'm here for Fahrenheit 9/11."
[indieWIRE will publish a full report on this weekend's box office grosses in Wednesday's weekly BOT article.]