Michael Moore has long been an anomaly, raking in dollars at the box office in an era when most documentary filmmakers are lucky to grab a few nickels. Even his least successful film of the last 15 years, 2009's "Capitalism: A Love Story," was still popular enough that it ranks at 18th all-time on the box office chart with more than $14 million in theatrical receipts.
When Moore is on, a hard-core group comes out. And when he hits the zeitgeist decisively, a lot more people come out. Moore holds the record for highest-grossing documentary ever with the $119 million unadjusted total for "Fahrenheit 9/11" back in 2004, a movie so huge that it actually won an entire weekend. On fewer than 900 screens. In June.
That should spell some pretty good prospects for "Where To Invade Next," Moore's latest movie.
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"Where to Invade," as you might recall, was a sneak attack at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks ago. Its title says war, but the film is actually about domestic policy — education, workplace conditions, prison reform — as filtered through other countries that seem to do it better. Moore "invades" these lands — that is, visits mainly places in Europe, interviewing (OK, setting up to tout their system/express surprise about America) a group of locals and officials as he goes.
On Wednesday, Moore and some new partners said the movie would soon be hitting theaters. The film has been acquired and will be released by Tom Quinn, Jason Janego and Tim League, who have formed an as-yet unnamed company. Quinn and Janego are the two New York-based specialty film execs who were behind another progressive-minded doc hit, "Citizenfour," last year — as well as less politically oriented successes such as "20 Feet from Stardom" — when they were still at the Weinstein Co. subsidiary RADiUS. League is the Alamo Drafthouse founder and Fantastic Fest czar.
They've acquired "Where To Invade Next" and will make it their first release come December, when they say they will begin a roll-out to at least hundreds of theaters.
All of this should bode well for "Invade," and not only because of the sure hands at the wheel. It's an election year, so people are feeling political. Moore always brings the fans when these feelings are in the air. And he also brings the funny here. "Invade" should at least get to his floor of $14 million, and could theoretically go a lot higher.
But there a number of caveats. And they're not insignificant.
Moore has been gone for six years; he hasn't made a movie since "Capitalism," and he has, by his own admission, been keeping a low media profile the last few years.
He's now made a movie about the nuts and bolts of domestic policy — a domestic policy that features shiny Italian vacationers, sure, but which doesn't stir the conspiracy loins the way some of his other movies do.
And here's maybe the biggest caution flag: Moore has tapped into leftist outrage with his previous four movies, which all came out when the country was under a Republican leadership. OK, so "Capitalism" was technically released when Obama was in the White House, but only by a matter of months, and in any event there was still a lot of residual anger over the financial crisis from a year before. Moore's new movie is headed into a time of vast populist outrage — only it's an outrage that seems most concentrated on the right, if the surge of outsider Republican candidates is any indication.
Sure, there's Bernie Sanders and the "Draft Warren" campaign on the left. But with a Democrat in the White House for the last seven years and Hillary Clinton on cruise control to become the next Democratic nominee, the movement in opposition isn't there in the same numbers as it was during some of his previous movies. "Fahrenheit" came out four months before the 2004 election, when the left was in a full-throttle throw-out-W mind-set.
And all of this doesn't get into a changed business climate. Moore has been one of the few doc filmmakers able to get people off couches and into theaters. But the culture of on-demand and at-home viewing has grown by leaps and bounds for independent film in the six years since he last put out a movie, and it's far from clear that he can transcend that.
Still, it's worth noting that the new distributors are a savvy bunch. They'll be seeking to tap into election sentiments: They noted in the release, "We hope to remind Americans they have the inalienable right to laugh, especially in an election year." With some of the candidates on the right already providing those opportunities, we'll see soon enough how many people will head to theaters for another comic dose.