Controversy just may be Michael Moore's best friend. With "Fahrenheit 9/11," Moore's incendiary documentary targeting Bush, due in theaters next week, Bush supporters are pressuring theater owners to not show the film, liberal groups are developing a counterattack and former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo has joined the fight to appeal the R rating handed it by the Motion Picture Assn. of America.
Bad news? Hardly. Like Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," all the gnashing of teeth is generating the sort of media attention that should pay off at the box office. The documentary, which opens in New York on Wednesday and in L.A. and the rest of the country next Friday, will screen in more than 700 theaters; Moore's Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine" played in 243 theaters at its peak.
On the exhibition front, theater owners have thus far not bowed to an Internet campaign organized by Move America Forward to drop the film. The Sacramento-based group, with ties to Republican campaigns and last year's effort to push "The Reagans" miniseries off CBS, was formed last month by former California Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian (R-Carlsbad). According to the group, the website has received more than 2.5 million hits since the posting last Friday.
John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, calls the tactic "ill-advised and counterproductive." Any time someone protests a film, he notes, it lights a fire under the box office.
"Not one theater owner has told me that the e-mails have had an impact," said Fithian, whose group represents 27,000 movie screens. "I don't know of any theater chain that's not going to play the picture. Exhibitors, as a whole, are probably more conservative than Hollywood, as a whole, but they're also believers in the 1st Amendment -- the right to show movies of all different philosophies and perspectives."
Rick King, a spokesman for AMC Theatres, said that nine of his theater members were listed on the Move America Forward site and on another called "Patriotic Americans Boycotting Anti-American Hollywood." One received about 20 e-mails, he said, some threatening not to patronize his theater.
"As long as a movie has artistic merit and the potential for commercial appeal we'll play it," King said. "People should be permitted to make up their own minds. And, frankly, a film like this broadens the appeal of our theaters. It's a chance to program a serious-minded picture in a market dominated by lighter fare."
The Pacific Theatre chain also indicated that it will not be dissuaded by the e-mails.
Meanwhile, Moveon.org, a liberal political action committee, is also mobilizing the ranks. On Wednesday, it sent an alert to its 2.2 million members asking them to bring friends to the film and view the trailer on a website to counter the pressure of those opposed to the movie. And Moore has hired Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani, former advisors to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, to go after anyone who slanders him or his work.
"Fahrenheit 9/11," the filmmaker has said, will be a political tool in the current presidential election. Screenings will be staged to benefit antiwar groups, set up by families of U.S. troops in Iraq and victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Moore is mounting a voter-registration and get-out-the-vote campaign.
Sal Russo, chief strategist for Move America Forward, said that the call for exhibitors to boycott Moore's film is less a 1st Amendment issue than a warning about faulty goods.
"People have a right to make silly movies and air them," said Russo, who has yet to see the film. "But this one is a bad product -- a so-called documentary whose accuracy has been called into question.... Telling theater owners not to screen it is no different from telling Wal-Mart not to stock guns and ammunition or Paul McCartney telling his employees not to eat beef or wear leather. We're all saying that there are commercial products in which people shouldn't partake."
The number of people who see the film will diminish if the movie's R rating stands. The R, prohibiting people younger than 17 from seeing it unless accompanied by a parent or adult, was affixed "for violent and disturbing images and for language." The film's distributors say it could result in a drop in box-office receipts of as much as 20%.
"It's impossible to quantify the box-office impact," said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Releasing. "But the larger point is that a PG-13, cautioning parents that some of the material is unsuitable for children under 13, is appropriate for the picture."
The MPAA has rejected Lions Gate's emergency appeal for an "expedited screening" to reassess the rating, explaining that it takes five to 10 business days to organize an appeal hearing. Sources close to the proceedings say that "Fahrenheit 9/11" is believed to have received the R rating on June 8 -- just over two weeks before the opening.