The country is polarized, Michael Moore is Hollywood's most polarizing filmmaker, and almost everybody is agitated about the economy. Put it all together, and the timing for Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" couldn't be any more provocative.
Moore's latest nonfiction jeremiad -- about the incestuous relationship between government and corporate America -- premieres in Los Angeles and New York on Wednesday with the kind of build-up usually reserved for "Spider-Man" sequels. On the heels of the film's raucous, ovation-filled screenings at the Venice and Toronto International film festivals, Moore will continue a high-profile publicity tour that includes appearances on "The Tonight Show," "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "The View" and one of television's stranger stops for an anti-consumption crusader, "The Martha Stewart Show."
But for all the flattering attention (and name-calling loathing) that Moore generates, his movies are typically less popular at the box office than some people might imagine. "Capitalism," in other words, will be talked about and seen by a lot of moviegoers -- but will still need a special, extra something to explode into a true blockbuster.
Among documentary directors, Moore has utterly no equal -- 2004's "Fahrenheit 9/11," with domestic ticket sales of nearly $120 million, is by far the highest-grossing non-nature documentary of all time. And even though his other movies -- 2007's "Sicko," 2002's "Bowling for Columbine" and 1989's "Roger & Me" -- sold many more tickets than almost every other non-Imax documentary, they grossed on average $17.6 million, just a bit more than this summer's Eddie Murphy flop "Imagine That."
"Capitalism," Moore's take-no-prisoners look at the financial crisis and the power Wall Street exercises in Washington, seems poised to do a lot better.
"The movie is really good and we're getting a lot of buzz," says Peter Adee, the marketing chief for Overture Films, which co-financed and is releasing "Capitalism" domestically, with production partner Paramount Vantage handling the documentary overseas. "He's incredibly entertaining and articulate about his point of view."
Overture's plan is to carry the early enthusiasm generated in the New York and L.A. screenings into the film's national release on Oct. 2, when "Capitalism" will expand to approximately 1,000 locations. It's twice as fast an expansion than "Sicko," which moved into 441 locations its second weekend, but slower than "Fahrenheit," which grew to 1,725 locations in its second weekend.
"We think it's going to create great word of mouth in New York and Los Angeles," says Chris McGurk, Overture's chief executive.
Part of Overture's challenge is bringing younger and red state moviegoers into the "Capitalism" fold. Documentaries, including Moore's, tend to play to older adults, and the filmmaker's liberal politics have made him a preferred target for conservatives.
Though Overture is not yet buying commercial time on Fox News ("You'd be talking into the wind," Adee says), the mini studio is advertising "Capitalism" during NFL games and mass-appeal series such as "Law & Order," "Big Brother" and "Dancing With the Stars."
McGurk believes "Capitalism" is an equal-opportunity offender, noting that among Moore's villains are former President Bill Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). "People will be surprised at how many people he calls out," McGurk says. "It's both sides of the aisle. The basic idea that Wall Street is running the country is not a left-wing idea."
McGurk says that weighing "Capitalism" against "Fahrenheit" is unfair, as the latter movie is the "Titanic" of documentaries. "It's not a good comparison," he says.
Moore says he knows the subject matter is not inherently cinematic.
"To make a movie about an economic theory? How are you going to make that something people would actually want to see on a Friday night?" he says.
"At the end," Moore says, "to come out and say that I believe capitalism is evil, and that you can't regulate evil . . . that's putting it out there. People know my politics, and it's important to let the audience think some of this out for themselves, come to some of their own conclusions. But I just thought: If I had to say one thing only -- if all my films from this point on are going to be fiction films, or whatever -- what would I say? And that's what I wanted to say.
"I'll get criticized for saying it, I'm sure, because people are OK with me criticizing the system, but to say the system has to be eliminated -- that makes people scared."
Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips contributed to this report.