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Was The Sarah Palin Documentary Actually a Hit?

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire July 18, 2011 at 7:46AM

Sarah Palin documentary "The Undefeated" opened in 10 theaters this weekend and its performance was definitely the second most discussed topic among box office pundits yesterday (clearly, "Harry Potter" smashing every conceivable record was #1). indieWIRE's own box office column suggested the performance was "respectable" but "unspectacular," despite press releases that lauded the film's numbers.
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Sarah Palin documentary "The Undefeated" opened in 10 theaters this weekend and its performance was definitely the second most discussed topic among box office pundits yesterday (clearly, "Harry Potter" smashing every conceivable record was #1). indieWIRE's own box office column suggested the performance was "respectable" but "unspectacular," despite press releases that lauded the film's numbers.

One press release began:

ARC Entertainment Announces Strong Opening for “The Undefeated,” with multiple sold-out runs and vocal audience support.


“What would have taken months and cost millions, ARC did in weeks with virtually no traditional media advertising"


Wider national rollout to commence in the coming weeks

The release also included numerous quotes from people involved with the film, including Trevor Drinkwater, CEO of ARC Entertainment, the film's distributor:

“We are extremely pleased with the audience reaction, which has been over-the-top enthusiastic and very passionate, including standing ovations at most screenings. We expect word-of-mouth to keep ticket sales strong and we will definitely expand the film to a wider national audience. With merely three weeks of preparation and a virtually non-existent traditional advertising spend, the film did exceptionally well."

There is no denying that the fact that the film came into theaters on such short notice with such a minuscule advertising budget is impressive. But the grosses themselves are not.

The press release was quick to claim victory, but also only offered part of the story, refraining from giving full weekend estimates (which indieWIRE asked for on multiple occasions yesterday to no response):

"Through Saturday night the film had a stronger opening than expected with the large markets trending towards weekend per screen averages above $10,000 driven by multiple sold-out runs. The film had accumulated approximately $5,000 per screen through Saturday night."

In the end, while "The Undefeated" did manage $10,000+ grosses in some of its theaters, its actual gross was $65,132 for a per-theater average of $6,513. This also wasn't noted in an article on the website Conservatives4Palin, which ran with the headline "The Undefeated Has the Second Highest Gross Per Theater Average for Movies This Weekend."

That's actually not true. Errol Morris' "Tabloid" had a higher per-theater average at $6,514 (mind you, that's a difference of $1), while "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" averaged $20,998 from 1 screen for second. "The Undefeated" was fourth. And even still, a $6,513 average is nothing to phone home about. Had it been playing on 100 screens, sure. But this was a 10-screen release in conservative cities and small towns: Grapevine, Texas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Independence, Maryland; Kennesaw, Ga.; Houston, TX; Orlando, FL; Oklahoma City, OK; Highlands Ranch, Colo.; Phoenix, AZ and Orange, Calif. A $15,000 or $20,000 average? Now that would have been cause for celebration.

To put it into context: On 22 screens earlier this year, Jodie Foster's "The Beaver" managed a $4,890 average in what is widely seen as one of the worst limited debuts of the year. Certainly it had a larger marketing budget and bigger star power than "The Undefeated." Though one could also argue Sarah Palin is as a big a draw as Jodie Foster or Mel Gibson.

Perhaps another appropriate comparison is the similarly right-wing pandering "Atlas Shrugged, Part I," which debuted on a far wider 299 screens and managed a similar $5,640 average. While that was a respectable debut for a film a release of that size, the film dropped off sharply in its second weekend and was generally perceived as a disappointment.

This is not to say "The Undefeated" was a disaster. Considering its production and marketing budget, and its swift release, a $6,513 average might not be great, but it's not horrible either. In an article in The Hollywood Reporter, it was also noted that the film was often playing in theaters with limited seat counts (95 seats was quoted as an example), and that there were definitely sold out shows (a theater in Phoenix even played the film on two screens at one point because of demand). All definitely worth noting.

But there was definitely -- and rather expectedly -- a lot of spin going on in announcing "The Undefeated" as a bona fide success story right out of the gate. What will define the film's success will come in the following weeks when distributor ARC Entertainment will expand it across the country; details of the expansion have yet to be released.