Political films can't compete with real thing

Tue Oct 14, 2008 8:49am EDT

A scene from the film ''An American Carol''. REUTERS/Handout

A scene from the film ''An American Carol''.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It's been a discouraging couple of weeks for those on the right. John McCain is lagging Barack Obama in the national polls. Sarah Palin is still firing up the Republican base, but she's gone from novelty act to punch line amid the broader electorate.

And even worse, "An American Carol," a movie that proudly waves the flag, has failed to find traction at the boxoffice.

Two weekends ago, David Zucker's fractured political satire, which aims most of its barbs at the excesses of a Michael Moore-like director, opened in ninth place, attracting $3.7 million in 1,639 theaters. In its second weekend, the film dropped a steep 64 percent and has earned $6 million to date.

To make invidious comparisons worse, "Religulous," the documentary from left-libertarian Bill Maher that sends up religion, opened just below "Carol" but enjoyed a better second-weekend hold, falling by only 35 percent. Its total stands at $6.7 million, even though "Carol" is playing in almost three times as many theaters as "Religulous."

No doubt, some on the right will see "Carol's" box office marginalization as further evidence of left-leaning Hollywood's domination of the culture. Writing on Townhall.com's Publius Forum, Warner Todd Huston raised an alarm that "there have been some disturbing reports that ticket sales for the film have been fraudulently credited to other films," though he later insisted he never suggested there was a "conspiracy" to undermine the movie.

More simply, "Carol" just encountered resistance among moviegoers more interested in lining up for a Disney movie about chattering Chihuahuas. A left-wing response to "Carol" would probably have fared just as poorly.

If, say, Moore himself tried his hand at a comedy satirizing Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly (the latter of whom makes an appearance in "Carol" to slap the Moore character around), it would likely fall on equally deaf ears. If you need evidence, look no further than Moore's one narrative movie, 1995's "Canadian Bacon," in which an American president played by Alan Alda tries to start a cold war with Canada to raise his standing in the polls. Released after the death of star John Candy, that movie grossed a whopping $164,000.

Hollywood might be a hotbed of liberalism, but when it comes to manufacturing mainstream entertainment, most Hollywood liberals are only too happy to check their politics at the door. For outside of a brief period in the 1960s, political satire of any stripe has rarely triumphed at the box office.

Certainly, there have been periods in our history when films were more engaged with political realities than they are today. In the '30s, confronted with the Great Depression, a lot of movies did champion the little man, most explicitly in the films of Frank Capra.

In the '60s, as the mainstream studios struggled to figure out how to appeal to a rebellious generation, Hollywood acknowledged the tensions of the Cold War, turning out gentle satires like Norman Jewison's "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming," which preached detente, and Stanley Kubrick's more unforgiving "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," which ended in nuclear annihilation.

But -- all too aware of George S. Kaufman's theatrical bromide that "satire is what closes on Saturday night" -- modern, corporate Hollywood generally steers clear of partisan entertainments.

Oliver Stone had to find independent financing for "W.," his portrait of George W. Bush that opens Friday. Similarly, Kevin Costner self-financed his most recent film, the Capra-esque "Swing Vote," in which he plays a regular Joe whose vote decides the outcome of a national election. Yet even though the movie tried to walk a fair-and-balanced line between its Republican and Democratic candidates, moviegoers shied away, and it took in just $16.3 million.

The lesson? When it comes to election-year entertainments, Hollywood can't compete with the politicians themselves.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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