The surprisingly successful box offices of political docs

Number Crunch: How Well Do Politics and Hollywood Really Mix?

on August 28, 2012 by Shawn Robbins
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michael_moore.jpgWith the Republican National Convention kicking off in Tampa, Florida this week, and the Democratic Convention to follow, plus surprise sleeper hit 2016: Obama's America, we're shifting gears to look back at the box office performances of political documentaries.

Catching many in the industry offguard, 2016: Obama's America successfully expanded into wide release this past weekend, pulling $6.5 million from 1,091 theaters across the nation. The weekend take bumped its total gross to $9.4 million and pushes it ahead of Rocky Mountain Pictures' previous political documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which grossed $7.7 million during its run back in 2008. Considering that the studio's top film to-date, the Ecuadorean thriller End of the Spear, made $12.1 million in 2006, Obama's America will easily become their highest-grossing pic within the next week.

One need not look too deeply at the history of political documentaries to know that a single director has dominated the genre for the past two decades. Michael Moore doesn't just hold the highest-grossing documentary of all-time with Fahrenheit 9/11's massive $222.5 million worldwide gross—he's also responsible for four of the next six best grossers on the list (Bowling for Columbine, Sicko, Capitalism: A Love Story, and Roger & Me).

But Moore's not the only political documentarian in town. He's just the most flagrantly profitable in a surprisingly profitable niche. 

Take 2010's Academy Award-winner for Best Documentary Feature: Inside Job, which argued that government policy played a role in the financial meltdown, banked $8.1 million globally during its box office run, and cost only $2 million to produce (excluding marketing).

The Corporation, a 2004 Canadian documentary that explored the effects of the contemporary foundations of business, went under the radar during its release but banked $4.6 million against a very modest $500,000 production budget.

Other films such as The Fog of War ($5 million worldwide box office) and Control Room ($2.7 million) round out some of the higher grossers of the genre that have gone largely unnoticed in the wake of massively marketed mainstream successes like Moore's films and the Al Gore-led global warming pic, An Inconvenient Truth ($49.8 million worldwide box office).

2008's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is itself generally considered a box office disappointment, although that's due less to the cost of the film itself ($3.5 million) and more to the cost poured into marketing it. The film's gross topped out at $7.7 million worldwide but ended up with an estimated $8.5 million in added prints and advertising costs. Rocky Mountain Pictures took notes on that business-end misstep when releasing 2016: Obama's America.

Perhaps one of the more interesting statistical measurements that will inspire some debate: of the 15 political documentaries that have grossed at least $1 million at the box office, a whopping 13 of them received good or great critical reviews. Nine of them scored over 90% on RottenTomatoes.com, in fact. The lone two films that sit with a rotten status: Expelled and 2016: Obama's America itself. Interpret as you will.

The trouble with politics and Hollywood is that, realistically, they seldom mix well enough to capture a large national audience.  Fahrenheit 9/11 in particular, and An Inconvenient Truth to a lesser extent, are two obvious exceptions in that they became major cultural touchstones. Ultimately, though, no matter what side of the fence you sit on, maybe the best lesson of any political documentary is not in their arguments themselves. Rather, it's that most audiences prefer not to mix blood and water ... err, politics and entertainment.  In a world where they have become increasingly—and sometimes frustratingly—intertwined, maybe it's high time that politics separate themselves from our cathedrals of escapism.

Highest-grossing Political Documentaries (over $1 million worldwide):

Note: Budget data on certain films was not available at the time of writing.

1. Fahrenheit 9/11 ($222.5 million gross vs. $6 million production/$18 million total budget)
2. Bowling for Columbine ($58 million gross vs. $3.5 million production/$6.5 million total budget)
3. An Inconvenient Truth ($49.8 million gross vs. $1 million production/$8 million total budget)
4. Sicko ($36.1 million gross vs. $9 million production/$20 million total budget)
*5. 2016: Obama's America ($18+ million projected gross vs. $2.5 million production/$8 million total budget)
5. Capitalism: A Love Story ($17.4 million gross vs. $20 million total budget)
6. Inside Job ($8.1 million gross vs. $2 million production budget)
7. Roger & Me ($7.7 million gross vs. $140,000 production budget)
7. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed ($7.7 million gross vs. $3.5 million production/$12 million total budget)
9. The Fog of War ($5 million gross) (Unknown budget)
10. The Corporation ($4.6 million gross vs. $500,000 marketing budget)
11. Control Room ($2.7 million gross) (Unknown budget)
12. Why We Fight ($1.4 million gross) (Unknown budget)
12. The U.S. vs. John Lennon ($1.4 million gross) (Unknown budget)
12. No End In Sight ($1.4 million gross vs. $2 million production budget)

Please note: "Combined budget" refers to the sum of the production budget and estimated cost of prints and advertising. All references to budgets include both of these figures unless otherwise noted. In addition, all "gross" figures -- unless otherwise stated -- refer to worldwide theatrical box office revenue.

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Tags: No End In Sight, The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, Why We Fight, Control Room, The Corporation, The Fog of War, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story, 2016: Obama's America, Sicko, An Inconvenient Truth, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11
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