Wednesday, July 20, 2011



Much has been made – on both sides – of the opening weekend grosses for SARAH PALIN: THE UNDEFEATED political documentary. There was a cry from blogs and mainstream press that it didn’t even come close to FARENHEIT 9-11 or AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH either in total dollars or per screen averages.  Slate writer David Weigel opined, the new film isn't showing signs of broad-based success.

This is always the first arrow in the Hollywood quiver.  Movie Quality = Box Office Totals.  Ever wonder how Mark Hamill got a third non-Star Wars film after CORVETTE SUMMER bombed?  Or a 4th (remember THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA – nope.  Me neither.  It bombed,) It is all about the Money, honey.

Curiously, when films that endorse their leftist worldview bomb – they will not make the same argument, as a wonderful American Thinker article documents. Will Smith and Barry Sonnenfeld proved with WILD WILD WEST – talent alone doesn’t make a movie even if rakes in a lot of cash. 

But is there anyone that believes WILD WILD WEST ($114M) was basically as ‘successful’ as NOTTING HILL ($116 M)?  How about ANY GIVEN SUNDAY ($75M) which also was released in 1999?  Heck, even MESSAGE IN THE BOTTLE ($52M) is on TV 10 times more frequently and is ranked far higher in audience approval.

The budget of NOTTING HILL was one quarter that of WWW – and it’s estimated MARKETING BUDGET was closer to 1/7h.  If the return on all costs - including MARKETING is the true judgment of ‘success’ (something a REAL business would use as a measurement) – WWW was an ultimate failure despite having made over $100 Million.  And certainly why there wasn’t a WWW2.  Hollywood DOES eventually have to make money to stay in business afterall.  So actual dollars grosses are a highly distorted measurement.

It is strange then that Mr. Weigel makes his claim AFTER dismissing the movie’s success saying: “This isn't a perfect comparison, because Moore's film had a far bigger paid media campaign and stronger distribution network than Bannon's film. By the standards applied to Moore's film, …


So  Mr. Weigel ADMITS MEDIA and DISTRIBUTION play a large role, and then he proceeds to use a different standard to judge THE UNDEFEATED.   Someone should revoke laptop access code.

If you include the monetary value of the free publicity of FAREINHEIT 9/11 or AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH – it is likely more than millions of dollars to one.  No friendly network morning shows or puffy New York Times pieces even mentioned the opening as far as I know.

PUMPING advertising and pushing radio, tv and news articles WILL succeed in making people aware of your film – even curious.  It will NOT convince them it is any good.  And if a film only makes 20% the SECOND weekend – it is a good indicator audiences didn’t like what they saw.  So ongoing measurements are important.

So can we measure UNDEFEATED’s ‘success’ (or lack thereof) intelligently?  Sure we can by:

-         1. Total financial gross opening weekend
-         2. Total financial gross over the run of the film
-         3. Gross per Screen (opening and total run)
-         4. PROFIT (Grosses minus cost of production and marketing)
-         5. Cinematic Quality
-         6. Entertainment or (in the case of a political documentary) Persuasiveness
-         7. Impact

1. & 2. Clearly – THE UNDEFEATED was no record setter but according to’s category of Political Documentaries, it was #15 of the top 100 in opening weekend grosses REGARDLESS of the number of screens.  Time will tell how it does over the life of the film as the film expands cautiously again this week to an additional 5 SCREENS in 5 cities and 2 additional screens in Atlanta and Phoenix. 

Because so many of these films open and close quickly (often on a single screen so they qualify for DVD distribution) UNDEFEATED would actually be #52 of the top 100 and #15 in TOTAL FILM RUN GROSSES for documentaries opening with 10 screens or more even if it never made another penny.  42 of the top 100 only debuted with 1 screen and half (51) of the top 100 never even made it to 10 screens for the run of the film.  By any measurement the film is ALREADY in the top 50 (52) Political Documentary TOTAL grosses in it’s first week.

As reported in Politico:

One independent film analyst told POLITICO that for a little-advertised documentary with a very limited release, “The Undefeated” did quite well.
“In the most basic sense, anytime a documentary is selling out screens in a movie theater, it’s already successful,” said Phil Contrino, editor of

3. UNDEFEATED comes in #33 of the 100 PoliticalDocs if you go by its $6513 per screen average.  If you take out all openings of less than 10 screens – UNDEFEATED is #2 behind Farenheit 9/11 again – without ANY paid advertising. There is nothing to suggest this is a failure by any box office measurement.

4. Of course it is too early to know how much this film will make. Politico’s Ben Smith quotes industry analyst Bruce Nash as expecting the film to do between $4 Million and $5 Million. And these days theatrical releases only count for 25% to 30% of revenues – the lions share coming from DVD and TV right licensing.

Having directly managed theatrical grass roots marketing campaigns, this is a very good indicator of future success.  The reports of some theaters being ‘empty’ (at midnight no less) line up with my experience of non-advertised releases.  Your turnout is almost directly related to the enthusiasm and awareness of a specific theater community.  If some well networked rabble rouser tells their church members, rotary clubs and even drives the car pool directly there – it will do well IN THAT SPECIFIC NEIGHBORHOOD.  Unlike ADVERTISED film campaigns where a specific (or multiple) demographic groups get the same level of awareness through media  you would expect ticket sales to be more uniform.  But more of one type of moviegoer in a neighborhood (urban comedy for instance) – the higher turnout where there is a concentration of that demographic group or groups.

What is groundbreaking is that THE UNDEFEATED may be the first nationwide release to ONLY be released digitally.  Not only does this save the cost of expensive film prints – it gave UNDEFEATED the ability to be in theaters in 3 weeks from final editing.  The downside, of course is that the groundwork necessary to build ‘buzz’ and in the grassroots model – actual workers on the ground – is extremely limited.  This only adds to the sense that UNDEFEATED has much more power than has been given credit.
It was noted that movies like EXPELLED! (documentary on intelligent design) did well in very liberal urban areas. Leaving aside the obvious media elite bias that anyone outside of New York or Los Angeles is an uninformed, uneducated hillbilly – this actually portends VERY well for UNDEFEATED.  As mentioned in my earlier blog, Camilla Paglia – the well respected liberal New York Times columnist is very intrigued by Ms. Palin.  Again – with the infractions directed at Mrs. Clinton, I suspect there is a broader support for the feminist accomplishments of Palin that what ANYONE would suspect.

Bannon says UNDEFEATED was made for about $1 Million. FARENHEIT was reportedly made for about $6 Million.  For some weird reason Hollywood never wants to include the MARKETING costs or the theater owners cut of the movie ticket but traditionally 30% to 50% of the production budget is spent on marketing. This would bring FARENHEIT to $8 Million or $9 Million not including the millions of free publicity garnered from newsprint, news shows and radio interviews.

We have no idea what the total ad budget was for most of these other documentaries either.  But if indeed Victory Films spent ZERO on advertising for radio, TV (and the minimum required by theaters to list the film in print) as they claim, a 50% to 75% profit prior to DVD release is VERY impressive.  Believe me – just as no executive could explain the success of PASSION OF THE CHRIST (and immediately started developing Christian biopics just in case) – no one can predict where this film will go.  More likely is that at least indie studios, if not mainstreams, will need to rethink their model.  Wouldn’t that be hilarious if the ‘unsuccessful’ UNDEFEATED was actually the first successfully all digital release that executives have salivated over for years?

5 and 6 – I always find it odd in these kinds of debates QUALITY of the film is where the argument is viciously fought.  We might as just as well argue who makes the best hamburgers or whether THE BACHELOR is the worst show on TV.  (Of course my opinion in both of these cases happens to embody the empirical truth). 

Even though THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT looked like crap (and made a crap load of money) – enough people enjoyed it, ‘cinematic’ quality or not to make it one quarter of a billion dollars worldwide.  Yes, Billion. To which we all say ‘holy crap.’
THE UNDEFEATED has drawn vociferous rebukes and recommendations and I am shocked (shocked I tell you) that there is very little intelligent discourse accommodating other people’s views.

Even those which address issues like it’s soundtrack can’t do so without throwing in hysterical proclamations like that of Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy who called it a "documentary stitched together with a thousand sound bites," adding that "this entirely partisan account of the phenomenon that is Sarah Palin looks like a campaign film for a campaign that at least for the moment isn't happening." 

Many made reference to the constant crescendo of the soundtrack and editing cuts.  These are very fair comments I think.  But what is absolutely hilarious by those thinking themselves to be ‘intellectual’ are ascertations made without any evidence whatsoever like in this LA Times article (blog):

And actually, "The Undefeated" may have a larger problem: It doesn’t play that well to the faithful.  The New York Post's Kyle Smith, one of the most conservative mainstream print critics out there today, fiercely disliked the film, calling it a "hopeless, sputtering jumble" and saying he'd "sooner have watched a Michael Moore movie." Worse yet, he doesn't even think it serves its propaganda goals. "The busted logic and narrative chop of 'The Undefeated,’" he wrote, “don’t suggest the phrase, 'spirited new defense of Palin.' They say, 'cyclone landed here.’”

It doesn’t play well to the faithful?  CNN, Fox News, and first hand accounts across the blogosphere suggest EXACTLY the opposite.  Sure a movie can take 1 audience member and try to make it a campaign – but in EVERY city it was screened – there are reports of applause breaking out in the theater.  FOR A DOCUMENTARY.  Here I can only quote the character of Debra from EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND.  In a word, “Idiots.”

As someone who has actually MADE a small film and had a small part in the industry my take is simple:

It does the job of telling the story Sarah Palin and her supporters wants told.  

While the music seemed slightly manipulative toward the end, the audience I was with overwhelmingly loved it.  No one is forcing anyone to agree with it or believe it.  An intelligent person  should WANT to know both sides of a story – and it is clearly an indictment on our media that even conservatives truly do not understand the accomplishments of Governor Palin.

As I’m writing this article I’ve been tweeting with an independent film director who comes from a very conservative family – and he was trashing Sarah Palin.  Many of the views he espoused to me were one’s I held before seeing the film myself.  But he wouldn’t moderate his position although he had not read GOING ROGUE or watched the documentary.

No matter how much critics want to say, “she is unqualified,” it doesn’t change the fact she accomplished some historic things.  Wasilla could hardly be called a ‘town’ before she was mayor.  And according to Wasilla residents I interviewed who corroborated the story in the film, she fought overwhelmingly negative (and sexist I might add) forces to make it a thriving industrial town.  Unlike achievements like RomneyCare which wither in luster over time – residents of Wasilla currently enjoy the legacy that Palin nearly singlehandedly wrought.  And they credit HER for it.

It was Palin demonstrating grace and virtue in crediting Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro for her accomplishments although she disagreed with her (severely) on most things political.  Even Dennis Miller is quick to credit President Obama for not ‘taking his foot off of the gas’ on many of the military issues at stake in the war against terror.  Hardly a good/evil diatribe from those with leftist leanings.  Who then is the adult in the room and who should we believe about the film?

For those who want to diminish these types of achievements by misleading people that it is a ‘horrible’ film – they fit the mold of the same people that want to declare Palin a ‘horrible’ person.  For whatever her faults and failures – she didn’t steal government secrets and put US servicemen and intelligence at risk as Mr. Assange did.  She has raised a family, tried to help people where she could and FACTUALLY has helped her city and state in many ways that remain today.

Critics are, after all, notoriously bad for their judgment on what the wider public will believe.  THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST received attacks from TV and print news ORGANIZATIONS as if it was exalting Hitler.  But in the end it made $300 Million worldwide and  - although less than half of the critics judged it ‘good’ - an overwhelming 84% (according to Rotten Tomatoes) disagreed.

7. Which brings us to IMPACT.  The short answer is, of course, we don’t know.  But the other political documentaries to which THE UNDEFEATD is being compared – CAN be measured.  AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH did an amazing $70,000 per screen average (4 screens) when it opened and continued to do $12,000 per screen a few weeks later.  But it was so filled with errors that the United Kingdom government has banned it from classrooms unless it carries a disclaimer of nine scientific errors.  Worse, the very emails of the scientists used at the center of the UN IPCC report (upon which the movie was based) admit there was no real evidence for ‘warming’ and now over 1000 scientists openly challenged man made global warming.  Meanwhile the US has spent millions to ‘sequester carbon’ and the DOE/EPA continue to borrow money to justify a science that is at very best ‘unsettled.’ That could be why GALLUP reports only 44% of US citizens believe in man made global warming a stupendous drop from 71% in 2007. Impact = fail.

How about FARENHEIT 9/11?    Clearly targeted at George W. Bush, GWB’s approval numbers continued to plummet through 2004 when F9/11 was released) to historic lows by the end of his Presidency.  Certainly deserved for some who willingly orchestrated the death of nearly 3,000 people, right?   Uhhmm, not so much.  As an example, the film claims Gore had the votes to win the 2000 election but a six-month study in 2001 by a consortium of six major news organizations — the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Tribune Co. (parent of the L.A. Times), Associated Press and CNN; plus two Florida papers, the Palm Beach Post and St. Petersburg Times found otherwise.  And Bush’s poll numbers?  He currently stands at 45% approval (US News) equal to that of Barak Obama.

So what finally to make of the numbers?  From Hollywood’s perspective they begrudgingly have to admit THE UNDEFEATED is not a failure.  They do have to be trusted to report box office news tomorrow.  From the rights’ perspective – it is a very, very big success when conservative movies like I WANT YOUR MONEY made $464 per screen.

Even against movies from Al Franken and Michael Moore’s SICKO – it is a resounding opening week success.  How big is still to be determined - likely by the grassroots forces that want to see Palin run for President.


I haven't had the opportunity to see it as no theaters here have it. I guess I'll see on PPV. Your review definitely has me anticipating this. Good review. You're a good writer.

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