LOS ANGELES - Bush-bashing became the nation's favorite spectator sport over the weekend as Michael Moore's red-hot documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" earned more in its first three days of release across North America than his previous record-breaking movie did in its entire run.
According to studio estimates issued on Sunday, "Fahrenheit 9/11," in which Moore takes aim at President Bush, and the war in Iraq, opened at No. 1 after selling about $21.8 million worth of tickets in the United States and Canada since June 25.
These are mind-blowing numbers. And the fact that all the predictions that the movie would only speak to the choir and that it would only be those who don't like Bush coming to the movie, I don't think have turned out to be true.
All told, the movie's total stands at $21.96 million, because it got a head-start on Wednesday in two Manhattan theaters to help build more media buzz before expanding to a relatively modest 868 theaters two days later. (By contrast, most of the other movies in the top five were playing in more than 2,500 theaters each.)
Moore's previous movie, "Bowling for Columbine," which nabbed the Academy Award for best documentary last year, grossed about $21.5 million during its nine-month run, peaking at about 250 theaters, according to Moore. That haul was a record for a documentary in regular movie theaters.
"These are mind-blowing numbers," Moore said during a conference call, "And the fact that all the predictions that the movie would only speak to the choir and that it would only be those who don't like Bush coming to the movie, I don't think have turned out to be true."
Indeed, "Fahrenheit 9/11" played strongly in big cities and small towns, in Democrat and Republican states, said Tom Ortenberg, the president of distribution at Lions Gate Films, one of the firms that backed the movie.
According to exit surveys in about 15 cities, 91 percent of respondents gave the film an "excellent" rating, while 93 percent said they would "definitely recommend" the film -- tallies that Ortenberg said were the best he had ever seen. The core audience was aged between 25 and 34, he added.
Lions Gate, a unit of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp, partnered on the film's distribution with IFC Films, a unit of Cablevision Systems Corp.'s Rainbow Media Holdings LLC, and Miramax co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein. The Weinsteins bought the movie's rights with their own money after Miramax parent Walt Disney Co. refused to let them release it under the Miramax banner.
The Disney brouhaha, which broke in early May, weeks before "Fahrenheit 9/11" went on to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, helped give the movie a huge public profile virtually unprecedented for a $6 million documentary.
Moore and the Weinsteins, well-practiced masters of media spin, were also helped in their efforts by grassroots groups from both sides of the political fence that chimed in with their opinions. Moore thanked his detractors for helping boost awareness and ticket sales.
While Moore has previously boasted that "Fahrenheit 9/11" would help Bush lose his job in November, he backed down during the teleconference, merely hoping that the film would inspire the large non-voting bloc to be "an active participant in our democracy." Similarly, Moore reversed himself on previously stated plans to release the DVD version of the film in October. "No deal has been done to do that," he said.
But one thing is certain. The Oscar race is now definitely underway ahead of next year's Feb. 27 ceremony, with "Fahrenheit 9/11" joining Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" as the highest-profile contender. "We have big plans for the award season, absolutely," Ortenberg said.
Elsewhere at the box office, the comedy "White Chicks" opened at No. 2 with $19.6 million for the weekend, and $27.1 million since bowing nationally on Wednesday. Last weekend's champion, "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," fell to No. 3 with $18.5 million, and a 10-day haul of $67.2 million.
Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal," starring Tom Hanks, fell two places to No. 4 with $13.9 million, and a 10-day total of $41.8 million. Director Nick Cassavetes' "The Notebook," a tear-jerker romance based on the Nicholas Sparks bestseller," opened at No. 5 with a solid $13 million.
"White Chicks" was released by Columbia Pictures, a unit of Sony Corp . "Dodgeball" was released by Twentieth Century Fox, a unit of News Corp.'s Fox Entertainment Group Inc . "The Terminal" was released by DreamWorks SKG, which is privately held. "The Notebook" was released by New Line Cinema, a unit of Time Warner Inc .
© 2004 Reuters Ltd