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Box office bash for '9/11'

June 28, 2004|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," in its first weekend, became the highest-grossing feature-length documentary, taking in an estimated $21.8 million, setting several box office records and surpassing a wide variety of escapist entertainment.

The three-day figure propelled the President Bush-bashing film just ahead of Moore's Oscar-winning "Bowling for Columbine," the previous record holder, which took in $21.6 million over its entire nine-month run.

If Sunday's projections hold, "Fahrenheit 9/11" will have had the best opening of any documentary, including giant-screen Imax films and concert movies, as well as for a movie opening in fewer than 1,000 theaters. Currently in 868 locations, "Fahrenheit" beat two comedies -- the debuting "White Chicks" in the No. 2 spot and "DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story" in third place -- each of which is playing in more than three times as many theaters.

The movie's performance had to be gratifying for Miramax Films Chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who bought back the film for about $6 million after corporate parent Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner forbade Miramax to release it because of its political content.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
"Fahrenheit 9/11" -- An article about "Fahrenheit 9/11" in Monday's Calendar section said the opening-weekend gross for the Disney film "Miracle" was $18.8 million. The movie, which came the closest among the last nine Disney feature films to "Fahrenheit's" opening-weekend gross of $23.9 million, took in $19.4 million. In addition, in some editions, the article omitted the first name of Harvey Weinstein, one of the heads of the Fellowship Adventure, formed to oversee release of "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Eisner, on the other hand, has to rue that "Fahrenheit 9/11" had a better opening than any of the nine feature films Disney has released this year. Only the Olympics hockey movie "Miracle" came anywhere close, with $18.8 million in its first weekend. For that matter, the film outperformed recent Miramax openings except for Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill Vol. 1" and "Vol. 2."

According to box office tracking firm Nielsen EDI, the last time a picture playing in fewer than a thousand theaters led the pack was April '94, when "Four Weddings and a Funeral" held the top spot.

Informal surveys of theaters and rival studios also indicated that the film was attracting crowds wherever it played in the GOP-leaning "red states" as well as the Democrat blue. Much of the audience was predictably left of center, but in addition to places like the liberal enclave of Santa Monica it was doing well even in several cities in the president's home state of Texas.

The movie, ultimately distributed by Lions Gate Films and IFC Entertainment, took a rocky path to theaters. That, and vocal opposition to the project, made for a publicity blitz that galvanized the box office.

"The right wing is getting a Christmas card from me," Moore said by phone. "None of us expected anything like this. We were probably listening too much to the punditry wondering if anyone would go to a Bush basher except hard-core Democrats."

The movie is attracting people "17 to 70," says Harvey Weinstein, who, with his brother Bob, heads the Fellowship Adventure Group, which they formed to oversee the release of the film after they bought it back from Disney. More than 80% are white, 5% African American, 5% Latino, with a sprinkling of Asians, he said -- although he expects those numbers to rise based on positive word of mouth.

"These are better numbers than I've had on any film," Weinstein said from New York. "The movie has transcended its genre. It's playing like a 'movie,' not a 'documentary.' An inside joke is 'How well it will play in Peoria?' The answer: Peoria sold out every performance. The film even did strong business in Odessa/Midland, the president's home [area] -- though that was one of the few places it didn't sell out."

Early surveys that tracked audience potential showed "Fahrenheit" scoring well with men over 25, Weinstein noted. Women, however, were always a question. "That [they] turned out pushed us over the top. In the end, the mix was 50-50."

According to Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment, early ads -- those running on news shows and Comedy Central, for example -- targeted primarily males. To boost the turnout further, female-oriented ads will be placed on the Oxygen and Lifetime cable networks during the coming weeks. The distributors plan to double the number of theaters as soon as possible, peaking at 2,000 by July 9 -- if they can secure them amid competition for screens from "Spider-Man 2," "King Arthur," "Anchorman" and "Sleepover."

"We'll be adding a few hundred theaters this week and a few hundred more the following week," Sehring said. "A huge number for a documentary but the movie has drawn even better response than our 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding,' [although] I'm not predicting that it will gross $246 million, as that one did."

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