Reel bias: Main­stream me­dia quick to dis­miss Palin film

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY CHRIS­TIAN TOTO

If you hap­pened to hear some­thing in the press last 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 over the July 16-17 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 was set to mod­estly ex­pand the fol­low­ing 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 for the week­end. It’s true - Repub­li­cans, too, are fans of the Pot­ter fran­chise.

The dis­trib­u­tor of “The Un­de­feated,” ARC En­ter­tain­ment, did some spin­ning of its own by high- light­ing 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 Os­car­win­ning 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 open­ing week­end of “The Un­de­feated.”

“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 be the num­bers for the July 23-24 week­end as it rolled out into ad­di­tional AMC The­aters in Tuc­son, Airz.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Mil­wau­kee; Char­lotte, N.C.; and On­tario, Calif., while play­ing in more movie houses in Atlanta and Phoenix.

By early this week, movie an­a­lysts may have a bet­ter feel of just how “Un­de­feated” Mrs. Palin’s doc­u­men­tary truly is.

Ad­di­tional re­port­ing for this ar­ti­cle by Va­lerie Richard­son

THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Some me­dia out­lets have pounced on “The Un­de­feated” by al­ready pro­nounc­ing the doc­u­men­tary about one-time Repub­li­can vice-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sarah Palin a fail­ure af­ter just a sin­gle week­end. It did man­age to sell out sev­eral show­ings.

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