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Box Office Bomb: Sarah Palin and the Failure of The Undefeated

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Sarah Palin's admirers and various other delusional conservatives are doing their utmost to try to convince us that The Undefeated, the hagiographic documentary about Palin, has been a rousing success thus far.

In the process, they're also attacking anyone who suggests otherwise. Take The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, for example, a conservative libertarian (and hardly one of Palin's fiercer critics) who on opening night last week went to a midnight screening of the movie out in Orange County, California, and found the theater empty (save for two young women who didn't know what it was about and left after just 20 minutes, as well as a couple who came in near the end, made out in the back row, and quickly left). (The rest of the multiplex was jam-packed for Harry Potter.) Friedersdorf's anecdotal point was simply that the midnight first screening of the Palin documentary didn't attract an audience even in a conservative place like Orange Country. (Big deal. That's hardly much of a surprise. Surely Palin's fans would show up at a normal time.) Friedersdorf was just reporting the facts as he witnessed them.

Ah, but that was enough to put him in the crosshairs, and he has since been viciously attacked by Andrew Breitbart, conservative bloggers, and conspiracy theorists (who insanely claim he set the whole thing up), as well as by various right-wing trolls on the Internet. You know, the usual suspects, wallowing in dishonesty, hatred, and outright craziness.

What happened to Friedersdorf is instructive (and deeply troubling), if predictable, but the question remains, how has The Undefeated done so far?

Critically, it has been panned. As I write this, it has a 32 at Metacritic (which seems to be a tad high given the overwhelmingly negative reviews it has received) and a 0 (yes, zero) at Rotten Tomatoes.

To Palin's defenders, this hardly matters. They, like conservatives generally, write off film critics as liberal partisans who couldn't possibly review a film independently of their supposedly left-wing political views. (This is how they dismiss negative reviews of any "conservative" movie, like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. If you didn't like that sado-masochistic turd, you had to be politically/theologically predisposed against it. There's no possible way you could just have disliked it, or thought it a terrible movie.)

So what they do is turn to box office figures. Critics may not like a "conservative" movie, but the public is another story. That's the real America, the "heartland" pushing back against the lefty elites. Surely the box office can prove that The Undefeated is an exceptionally popular, and hence exceptional, movie. This is the case that John Nolte (who also attacked Friedersdorf) makes at Breitbart's Big Hollywood: "Numbers Don't Lie: "The Undefeated" Had a Remarkable Box Office Debut.

Well, not so much. If there's anything remarkable about the movie's first-weekend haul it's how remarkably mediocre it was, well short of what some might have been expecting given the ongoing fascination with all things Palin.

The Undefeated grossed $65,132, or $6,513 per screen on its first weekend of release (as it played on ten screen total across the country). This put it in 40th place in terms of weekend gross but 5th in terms of screen average. Not too bad, though it's hard to compare a movie that played on ten screens (and for which people who wanted to see it had to search out those few screens) and a movie that played on thousands of screens, like Horrible Bosses, which averaged $5,672 on 3,134 screens. If a movie is playing on that many screens, attendance can be spread out more, reducing the per-screen average.

But, still, yes, $6,513 isn't bad. But it was the first weekend for The Undefeated, not for Horrible Bosses (which has a total gross of over $60 million to date), and one would expect the numbers to have been higher.

Not to worry, says Nolte. If you compare The Undefeated's numbers to the numbers of other political documentaries, it did very well. Its weekend gross puts it well back on the list, but its per-screen average makes it look much stronger. No, it wasn't Fahrenheit 9/11 ($27,558 average on 868 screens), Bowling for Columbine ($26,143 average on eight screens), or Roger and Me ($20,063 average on four screens), and certainly not An Inconvenient Truth ($70,332 average on four screens), but it stacks up fairly well against most of the other major political docs of the past 20 years.

Nolte takes this to mean that the movie was an unqualified success -- and then goes on to slam Palin's critics (as expected).

Here's the thing, though: As Joshua Green notes at The Atlantic, The Undefeated's numbers really weren't that good, or at least aren't worth bragging about. Now, the movie could have some life as it opens elsewhere around the country, and perhaps the ongoing infatuation with Palin will attract solid audiences, but shouldn't it have done better? Maybe not at Michael Moore or Al Gore levels, but Palin is a major political celebrity with a huge following. Where was the excitement for this piece of hagiographic crapola? Maybe elsewhere, maybe in the Heartland (as opposed to right-wing Orange County?), maybe if somehow some buzz can be generated, maybe if people go merely out of curiosity, but it certainly wasn't there opening weekend.

Now, I would suggest that Palin's popularity, while certainly real given her devoted following, is a product of the media as much as anything else. Which is to say, she would have some popularity anyway, but it's all the attention she gets in the media that turns her into a cultural phenomenon. Which is further to say, much of her popularity is a mirage -- it isn't really there. Just think how poorly she polls even among Republicans. Yes, I'll include myself and my blog in here -- we overdo it, covering her with excessive attention, treating everything she does, every word she utters, as far more significant, far more interesting, than it really is. And so we build up these expectations around her, including that any movie about her must do extremely well simply because it's about her -- and of course we, and supposedly the public generally, just can't get enough of her. If this is all wrong, or at least grossly exaggerated, then it should actually come as no surprise at all that people haven't been flocking en masse to see The Undefeated. Why should they? She's not nearly as popular as we say she is.

Don't get me wrong... this isn't all the media's fault. Palin plays the media and makes it seem herself as if she's far more significant and far more interesting than she really is, worthy of all the attention she gets, worthy of her stardom.

But while she rakes in massive amounts of money, she hasn't actually been all that successful, has she, at least in entertainment terms?

Sure, many still love her, including a core (if small) GOP constituency, and she has her Facebook followers and her commentator gig on Fox News, but her TV show, Sarah Palin's Alaska, mostly a massive ego trip but also possibly part of a campaign to boost her political fortunes (as it was a kind of campaigning, if not preliminary campaigning for a possible 2012 run), saw a huge drop in viewership after the first episode and was not renewed for a second season. And, again, her poll numbers are incredibly weak, even among Republicans. So should we really have expected a shamelessly and gratuitously hagiographic documentary about her, a documentary with an obviously self-aggrandizing agenda, to be a hit?

Cross-posted from The Reaction