Viewpoint: The Passion of the Bush

By Tim Briody

November 8, 2004

I'm a little bit country, I'm a little bit rock n roll!

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Here at BOP, our political leanings are covered only by the thinnest of veils, and that is regularly pointed out by the reader feedback we receive. Please note, however, that the opinions expressed here are completely my own and do not necessarially represent the views of the rest of the writers of this Web site.

Two films on completely different ends of the spectrum made box office history this year, and there was a good reason for many people to believe that one of them would have a direct impact on the result of the 2004 Presidential elections.

And we all picked the wrong one.

Flashback to just a couple of months ago, with the release of Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's documentary aimed squarely at putting President George W. Bush and his administration in its place. The film took in $23.9 million in its opening weekend, completely destroying every notion of a documentary's box office potential. Proving to be more than a one-weekend wonder, Fahrenheit 9/11 did not see a weekend decline of more than 40% until its eighth weekend in theaters, and by then it had already earned over $100 million, and finished with a tally of $119 million. The previous highest-grossing documentary was Moore's Bowling for Columbine, which earned $21.6 million, and that film never saw anything resembling wide release. Fahrenheit 9/11 took in more than five times that total.

I saw the film in a medium sized theater on a Tuesday night a few days after its release. The theater was sold out. This doesn't happen in this town on Tuesdays. It's not even discount night. The audience ranged from people I'm pretty sure had not seen a movie in theaters in at least ten years to kids I'm reasonably sure were not able to get into an R-rated movie yet. I was an early arrival. Watching the others shuffle in was absolutely fascinating.

Stylistically, Fahrenheit 9/11 is Moore's least polished documentary (with a few absolutely outstanding moments that make fantastic viewing) but it is by far his most timely, and after a standing ovation from almost the entire audience, we all left the theater ready to change the world for the better, starting with the removal of the guy who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.

The last thing on my mind in that late June evening was a film that had been released a scant four months earlier.

The Passion of the Christ was released on Ash Wednesday in late February, a time generally regarded as a box office wasteland. The film's subject matter, the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ, was considered so controversial that it almost never found a theatrical distributor. The buzz on the film began increasing shortly after the holiday season, and the film got tons of free publicity from mainstream news media. "So what?" many of us thought. There have been plenty of other films aimed squarely at Christians before (most notably, Left Behind), all with reports of church groups buying out entire theaters for a day's showings and they've all been flashes in the pan. This one isn't even in English.

The day one take? $26.5 million. After a fairly typical Thursday decline, it bounced back to $22.9 million on Friday, followed by a 44% uptick on Saturday, and a mere (and practically unheard of) 16% decline on Sunday. A weekend take of $83.8 million and $125 million in five days. One of the most amazing things in box office history, ever. And we had just witnessed the three Lord of the Rings films.

The Passion of the Christ marched through, well, March and saw a resurgence during Easter week in April (including returning to the top spot that weekend from fifth place, also completely unprecedented in this day and age) and by the time the passion for The Passion wound down, it found itself with $370 million, good for seventh place in all time box office. Summer sequels Shrek 2 and Spider-Man 2 were both able to top it, but it's still the all-time highest grosser of a film not released in the summer or holiday seasons. Not much more attention was paid to the film except when the entertainment news noted that it had made Mel Gibson a very rich man and that the DVD was also setting sales records.

I had all but forgotten about the film (full disclosure: mainly because I have not seen The Passion of the Christ, and have no desire to) as the election neared. Yet I was still awe-struck by what the Fahrenheit 9/11 supporters had done. It was $119 million of us strong. There was no stopping us on Election Day.

And then it happened. The Passion won. Which, a few days removed, now makes absolute sense, considering the $251 million difference in the gross of the films.

On a long drive just today, I was struck by the parallels in the recent results of the election, what I witnessed at my viewing of Fahrenheit 9/11, and what I remember reading upon the release of The Passion.

Both films had audience members who more than likely had not seen a film in theaters in an extremely long time. Like I said, at my Fahrenheit 9/11 screening, I was amused by the discussion of people who clearly had not seen a movie in a long time (yes, there are commercials before we even get to the trailers now!) But I recall reading a wire article on The Passion of the Christ where a woman in her 80s was interviewed while waiting to buy her ticket. She was dressed in her Sunday best and revealed that the last film she saw in theaters was E.T. I imagine the reporter then had to break the news to the lady that a buck and a half was not quite enough to pay for her admission.

That's the kind of voter this election brought out. Certainly, the Fahrenheit 9/11 side was more mobilized than it had been in years, and whether or not Moore had a lot to do with that is debatable but I don't think it can be denied. But still, there were $251 million more of them than there were of us.

When we hear that moral values were cited as one of the key reasons why a voter chose one candidate over the other, it at first seems difficult to believe to the $119 million of us who saw Fahrenheit 9/11 as what would lead us to the promised land, so to speak. But we need only to look at the amazing year that has been the 2004 box office to understand exactly how and why, and where these people came from.

(And none of that "well, if Shrek 2 did so well, how come the Green Party didn't do any better?" garbage, okay?)



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