Michael Moore’s latest political documentary “Fahrenheit 11/9” (Briarcliff) opened to a little over $3 million this weekend in 1,719 theaters. That comes to about 200 people per theater, or roughly 350,000 ticket buyers. No one expected Moore’s latest effort to replicate the staggering performance of “Fahrenheit 9/11” (tickets sold estimated at over 19 million). Still, his documentary history suggested a wide opening should generate $5 million-$8 million.
Even in the best of scenarios, it’s hard to see this gross much more than $10 million domestic. Despite substantial media attention and a Toronto Film Festival premiere, it will likely end well behind “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “RBG,” and “Three Identical Strangers.” Here’s why.
Michael Moore’s Films Have Declined in Appeal
Since “Fahrenheit 9/11” grossed (all adjusted) $178 million in 2004, he directed “Sicko” (2007/$33 million) and “Capitalism: A Love Story” (2009/$17.5 million), and then “Where to Invade Next” (2016/$4.1 million). “Invade” opened to a little under $1 million in 308 theaters, with a per-theater allowance of a bit over $3,000. With a bigger campaign and more media coverage, “11/9” had ian average of around $4,000; in many cases, nearby theaters competed for overlapping audiences. Still, both films are far lower than what was earlier expected from a new Moore release.
He’s No Longer a Voice in the Wilderness
“Fahrenheit 9/11” followed another hit, “Bowling for Columbine.” Both films came in the period after the September 11, 2001 attacks and subsequent Middle East war. It was a time when dissent was muted, and Moore positioned himself as a lonely truthspeaker to a willing audience hungry for his voice.
In 2018, people interested in Moore’s message also have Rachel Maddow and others on cable, Bob Woodward’s “Fear,” and multiple social media sites to interact with the likeminded. And with the news cycle’s daily — even hourly — revelations, any film on current events risks seeming stale by the time it’s released.
His Audience Loathes His Star
The film’s raison d’etre is President Trump. Sentient Americans get more exposure to him in a month than past presidents did in a year; going out to pay and see more of him might seem a bridge too far.
By contrast, Moore’s right-wing counterpart Dinesh D’Souza scored successes with his extreme views about the administration and Democratic party during the Obama administration. He played a role not dissimilar to Moore in 2004, appealing to those who wanted a strong dose of dissent without restraints. If misery loves company, Moore has a soulmate here: D’Souza’s recent “Death of a Nation” opened even worse, and also placed at the low end of his films. It ended up with less than $6 million with a wide opening of $2.3 million.
Dog Eat Dog Films
Moore Sometimes Resembles Trump
The audience he could hope to draw — mostly older Democrats, more upscale — are not as clearly attuned to his specific point of view. As a strong Bernie Sanders supporter, and someone who voiced significant criticism of Hillary Clinton (though he ultimately supported her), Moore has alienated himself from many who had previously bought tickets to his movies.
Then there’s the negatives that have always accompanied his films: the sense that he manipulates his facts, edits his films sometimes unfairly, and can be an oversized presence. Sound like anyone? No one ever accused Michael Moore of being overly modest, but it might not be the right time for an oversized personality with a hint of narcissism to reach the intended public tired of that in his subject.
The Marketing Campaign Duplicated the Film
Unconfirmed estimates are “11/9” cost about $4 million to produce, with a marketing budget of around $10 million — low for a release this wide. Moore’s access to multiple media outlets in the two weeks leading up to the opening kept costs down. He was omnipresent on cable, on network news programs, late-night shows, and more. And he delivered much of the same message the film wished to convey. There’s more to the film of course. But it’s possible that his access to media might have been a double-edged sword; potential ticket buyers may have decided they got the message already.
In his role as a political agitator, that price might be calculated into hise efforts. Since his desire is to push a specific message, and would not have been able to without the movie coming out, he might feel he’s already won.
Out of Step With What Has Made Other Documentaries Work
It can be hard to see a throughline in the successful documentaries of the last two years, which also include “I Am Not Your Negro,” “An Inconvenient Sequel,” “Jane,” “Kedi,” and “The Eagle Huntress.” But even those that preach to the choir (like “RBG”) have an upbeat feel. “Negro” was a social-issue documentary, but its portrayal of James Baldwin spoke to how a recent era’s brilliant writer still resonates. “Jane” celebrated animal conservation while creating a view of a heroic figure. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” was hardly at its core political, but it had a strong message about a world for children that protected and educated them far away from bullying that resonated.
“11/9” is a much blunter instrument. It wants to raise anger that leads to activism. Documentaries succeeding at the moment tend to be less confrontational and more comforting. That’s not Moore’s forte.