Why Sarah Palin documentary 'The Undefeated' isn't a hit
From the moment the Sarah Palin documentary "The Undefeated" was announced, many on the left tittered about its title. How could director Stephen Bannon give that name to a movie about someone who had, in fact, been defeated, and on the largest stage imaginable?
The film's box-office returns this past weekend have given us the next, and possibly more curious, phase of the debate. Bannon's film, which covers the professional career of the former Alaska governor, took in between $60,000 and $75,000 when it opened in 10 markets, its distributor said.
According to pretty much all conventional box-office wisdom, that's a miss. The film averaged only $6,750 per theater, a small number for any limited-release movie. ($10,000 or $20,000 is considered standard, and it's not uncommon for movies to take in $30,000 or more.)
But those behind it had a different take. The distributor, ARC Entertainment, sent out a press release blaring a "strong opening for 'The Undefeated,' with multiple sold-out runs and vocal audience support." In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Bannon said that "to characterize ['The Undefeated'] as anything less than a hit would be a mistake."
ARC said it was counting on a long run. “We expect word-of-mouth to keep ticket sales strong," CEO Trevor Drinkwater said in a statement.
But opponents won't find it hard to poke a hole in that claim. The initial release strategy for "The Undefeated" was to take it to places most likely to embrace it. In the Southland, for instance, the documentary played in Orange County before heading to Los Angeles, where it comes this weekend. So for ticket sales to be strong, it would have to perform at least as well in liberal strongholds as it did it in conservative ones.
There may be a simpler assessment for why "The Undefeated" tallied what it did: Movies featuring figures or subjects ripped from cable news generally don't do well. That's true for films across the political spectrum, including conservative ones. "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," Ben Stein's documentary about intelligent design, averaged fewer than $3,000 when it opened on more than 1,000 screens. Ditto for the Zucker Bros.' Michael Moore satire "An American Carol."
Most recently, the libertarian-themed "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1" -- a movie that was not considered a hit -- took in only marginally less per screen ($5600) despite opening on a lot more screens (300). Political movies that play to the faithful have a hard time because those in their intended audience feel they can (and do) get a strong dose of what the movie offers anytime they click the cable-remote over to their favorite news channel.
And actually, "The Undefeated" may have a larger problem: It doesn’t play that well to the faithful. The New York Post's Kyle Smith, one of the most conservative mainstream print critics out there today, fiercely disliked the film, calling it a "hopeless, sputtering jumble" and saying he'd "sooner have watched a Michael Moore movie." Worse yet, he doesn't even think it serves its propaganda goals. "The busted logic and narrative chop of 'The Undefeated,’" he wrote, “don’t suggest the phrase, 'spirited new defense of Palin.' They say, 'cyclone landed here.’”
The spinmeisters will continue to ply their craft. This is box office, after all, as well as politics. But in terms of a film that could have an effect on voters, or make a dent with consumers, the title of Bannon's movie may well prove a misnomer.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Sarah Palin at "The Undefeated" premiere in Pella, Iowa. Credit: Andrea Melendez /Associated Press