No one expected it to rival Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the highest-grossing feature-length documentary ever. Still, the filmmakers behind “Celsius 41.11: The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die” hoped that -- with online home video sales and a brief theatrical run -- their pro-Bush rejoinder would fuel the debate in a presidential contest too close to call.
The R-rated film, released Friday, took in a disappointing $100,000 in 116 venues during its opening weekend. According to the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, its $862-per-theater average was below comparable opening-weekend averages for the left-leaning “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry” ($1,713 per theater) and Robert Greenwald’s “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” ($15,611 per theater).
“Fahrenheit,” in contrast, took in $23.9 million the weekend after its June 23 release, averaging $27,558 in 868 locations. It grossed $119.1 million during its 15-week theatrical run.
“We may have come out too late,” said writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd, a “Celsius” producer. “At this point, Republicans and Democrats, both, are suffering from combat fatigue ... and going up against the World Series didn’t help.”
Getting “Celsius” into theaters at all was a challenging proposition for Citizens United, the conservative grass-roots organization that funded the $1-million project. The group was left to self-distribute the film after Fox Searchlight and Lions Gate Entertainment, which released the Moore film, declined to handle it, according to David Bossie, Citizens’ president.
Bossie, a Hollywood newcomer assisted by former Columbia and Universal studio chief Frank Price, lined up theaters in 40-plus markets for the Friday launch. Though it played best in conservative areas such as Orange County and Phoenix, Bossie said, individual theaters in Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle and even New York City also found their way into the Top 10. Contesting Moore’s “anybody-but-Bush” tack, the movie pokes holes in conventional wisdom about issues including the disputed 2000 Florida presidential election tally and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
“Documentaries have become a weapon of the left,” Bossie said. “After seeing Moore’s impact, I wanted to counterpunch. Logistics worked against us in terms of a theatrical run because we had to go from start to finish in three weeks. But politics, I suspect, also played a part.”
Though Bossie said he believes distributors were politically motivated when they passed on the film, Chetwynd and co-producer Ted Steinberg disagree. Fox Searchlight and Lions Gate were shown an unfinished version, they said, and the companies in question had other movies -- some, possible Oscar contenders -- already booked on available screens.
“ ‘Celsius’ has a short ‘sell by’ date,” Chetwynd said. “After Nov. 2, it’s done. In the opinion of the distributors, there wasn’t enough playing time to recoup their money -- which is what it’s all about. Whatever the feelings about its content, the movie was treated with respect.”
Working around the clock for seven weeks, the producers worked with director Kevin Knoblock, interspersing archival footage and interviews with personalities such as journalist Charles Krauthammer and former Tennessee senator-turned-actor Fred Thompson (“Law & Order”).
Off screen, as well, there’s conflict, charges and countercharges between opposing factions. On Thursday, an attorney for composer Philip Glass filed suit against Citizens United, contending the group had appropriated Glass’ “Anthem Part I” (“the Composition”) without his consent to use in “Celsius” advertisements. Since the suit was filed, the two ads in question have been pulled from the website until the issue is resolved.
“This is a question of an author’s right to control how his or her work is used,” said Glass attorney Tim O’Donnell, who became aware of the situation when a fan called to inquire why the music had been licensed.
According to Bossie, the only music used in the ads was a Mozart piano concerto and Walter Heinisch’s “Religious Wars.”
While “Celsius” entered on the right, “Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire,” the latest left-of-center documentary, landed in theaters over the weekend, too. This week there’s “In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed,” an examination of the former president’s confrontation with communism in the context of the current war on terrorism.
“Celsius,” Chetwynd said, “is an attempt to insert a point of view into the marketplace of ideas.
“I thought it was going to be a red-state, blue-state thing, but -- just like in the general election -- none of the old rules seem to apply,” he said. “What I find most encouraging is that we did so well in Ohio, the key battleground state, where five theaters were among the Top 25.”