- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2008

“The Passion of the Christ” identified a long-neglected market niche: religious conservatives eager to hit the cineplex for just the right movie.

Secular conservatives remain an unreliable box-office constituency, if the returns for “An American Carol” are any indication.

The new comedy, from “Airplane!” creator David Zucker, earned just $3.8 million during its opening weekend on 1,639 screens, according to boxofficemojo.com. That’s despite heavy media coverage and a barrage of “Carol”-friendly chatter from conservative talk-radio heavyweights including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

One can blame the mediocre trailer or the lack of A-list stars, but conservatives have insisted they have been waiting for a film that reflects their values, as “Carol” does in nearly every frame.

Mr. Zucker’s movie uses the “Christmas Carol” template to debunk liberal dogma, skewer Oscar-winning director Michael Moore and trumpet red-state values.



Blue staters, who often have their pick of film selections, showed more love for the atheist battle cry “Religulous.” The confrontational Bill Maher documentary, which also benefited from a free-media tailwind, earned $3.5 million on just 502 screens.

In even sharper contrast to the satirical “Carol” was the inspirational feature “Fireproof,” starring Kirk Cameron. Playing on 852 screens in its second week of release, the low-budget film rode a marketing campaign targeted to a conservative Christian audience to another $4 million, proving it’s not a fluke but a film that truly hit a nerve with the public.

David Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, says “Carol’s” modest opening could hurt like-minded films in the short term.

Nevertheless, Mr. Bossie is optimistic about the genre’s future.

“This is a test of what can be done. I believe there’s gonna be many more,” Mr. Bossie says. “This needs to be seen as the first of many films, not a solitary event.”

Some of the movies will be coming from Citizens United’s own film division. The group, which previously released documentaries including “Hype: The Obama Effect” and “Border War,” will soon start making narrative films.

“Carol’s” box-office receipts “do not in any way, shape or form dissuade me from making them,” Mr. Bossie says.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office-tracking firm Media by Numbers, says the weekend’s glut of film releases - about 11 in limited or wide release - may have hurt “Carol’s” standing.

“It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle,” Mr. Dergarabedian says.

That didn’t seem to slow “Fireproof,” though.

Mr. Dergarabedian isn’t sure studios will be clamoring to make another film like “American Carol,” based on the early response. If they do, they’ll likely seek out a better grass-roots marketing campaign.

“If the past couple of weeks have taught us anything, if you have a movie that might appeal to more conservative viewers, you have to package it in a certain way,” he says. “It’s just a matter of the marketing, getting the word out, creating a buzz in the community you’re trying to reach.”

Even if they turn out their own base, however, films that preach to the choir automatically restrict their potential audience. Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, says “An American Carol” struggled, in part, because it failed to move beyond its ideological roots.

“It was declaring itself as this conservative movie as opposed to doing what people want from movies - be funny,” Mr. Gray says.

Even the film’s radio advertisements played up the supposed outlaw nature of releasing a conservative film rather than leading with a few hilarious lines from the movie, he adds.

Movies often score when they offer an escape from reality - not a continuation of partisan politics by other means.

It’s a lesson “An American Carol” learned over the weekend and one Oliver Stone may have to relearn when “W,” his instant-history biopic of our current president, opens Oct. 17.

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