- - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

If you happened to hear something in the press this week about the new documentary “The Undefeated,” chances are it was negative.

Maybe you even heard that director Stephen K. Bannon’s glowing account of Sarah Palin’s political ascent was a big box-office flop.

And if you did, maybe what you heard was negative spin motivated by anti-Palin bias.

The biographical documentary hit theaters last weekend to scathing reviews and a press that seemed all too eager to bury it. Still, it managed to sell out several showings en route to $6,500 per screen across 10 theaters and is set to expand modestly this weekend.

Those aren’t huge numbers, but they’re more than respectable for a film with virtually no traditional marketing muscle and a scant three-week booking window.

“The Undefeated” currently has a 0 percent “fresh” rating, a measure of a film’s popularity, over at the critical aggregator site RottenTomatoes.com, although most media outlets like The New York Times have yet to chime in with an official review. And some reporters pounced on one journalistically dubious account to prove it’s already a failure.

“Sarah Palin Movie Debuts to Empty Theater in Orange County,” blared the headline over at TheAtlantic.com based on one political blogger’s experience at a single midnight screening. That’s hardly a fair test of the film’s drawing power. Movie buffs line up for midnight screenings of can’t-miss sequels and pre-sold blockbusters about iconic superheroes -not political documentaries.

Respectable news outlets quickly picked up the empty theater meme, including a Los Angeles Times blog, nymag.com and Politico.

That wasn’t all the film had working against it.

“The Undefeated” hit theaters on the same weekend a certain boy wizard made his final curtain call. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” sucked up most of the box office oxygen last weekend. It’s true Republicans, too, are fans of the Potter franchise.

“The Undefeated’s” distributor, ARC Entertainment, did some spinning its own by highlighting the film’s biggest grossing theaters to puff up a selective per-screen average of roughly $11,000.

But the spin-less opening weekend grosses need no apology. Compare “The Undefeated” to three of last year’s more celebrated political documentaries:

• “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer”: Despite critical huzzahs for this title from Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), “Client” averaged $5,654 in per screen grosses on its opening weekend, en route to a total of $189,416 for its 12-week theatrical run, according to Box Office Mojo;

• “Casino Jack and the United States of Money”: The same director’s chronicle of disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff opened with a paltry $3,137 per screen average (more than 50 percent lower than the Palin doc’s) on its way to a 63-day total of $176, 865.

• “Inside Job”: This timely dissection of the U.S. financial meltdown with superstar narrator Matt Damon trumped “The Undefeated” in a very big way. “Job” averaged a whopping $19,825 per screen its opening weekend before earning a stellar $4.3 million for its theatrical run and winning the 2010 Oscar for best documentary.

Consider Brandon Gray of Box Office Mojo unimpressed by “The Undefeated’s” opening weekend.

“Maybe it did very well at a few theaters. It’s nothing to write home about. Even among political documentaries, it’s still not in the top tier,” Mr. Gray says. “Maybe they didn’t spend money on publicity, but they didn’t need to there were a lot of articles and news stories about this leading up to its release.”

Karie Bible, an analyst with L.A.-based Exhibitor Relations, says the film’s social media marketing approach meshed with the film’s content.

“You get one person who’s a Sarah Palin fan, and they can reach all kinds of people,” Ms. Bible says. “It’s a very inexpensive, highly effective way to get the word out.”

But social media can’t replace traditional ad buys, the kind that bring awareness across audience demographics. If “The Undefeated” preaches to the choir, so does Facebook.

The film’s true test may come this weekend as it rolls out into additional AMC Theaters in Tucson, West Palm Beach, Fla., Milwaukee, Charlotte and Ontario, Calif. while playing in more movie houses in Atlanta and Phoenix.
By Monday, movie analysts may have a better feel of just how “Undefeated” Mrs. Palin’s documentary truly is.

• Additional reporting for this story by Valerie Richardson.

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