That's the kind of spin one might have expected from political boosters about Sarah Palin documentary The Undefeated's second-weekend nosedive. After all, the box office reality didn't stop them from proclaiming an unremarkable opening to be remarkable last week.
Instead, they ignored the box office defeat altogether and began pushing a press release about The Undefeated's imminent arrival on pay-per-view/video-on-demand and DVD. That press release, by the way, was issued after the movie's second weekend results came in.
Here's the reality: The Undefeated debuted to $65,132 at ten locations over the July 15-17 weekend. This past weekend, its release grew to 14 locations, but business plummeted 62 percent to $24,664, averaging $1,762 per site. That put its total at just $101,382 in ten days, which means it's sold an estimated 13,000 tickets. But "demand across the country remains high," according to that press release. (Undefeated is not to be confused with Sarah's Key, a foreign language movie that opened to $115,708 at five locations this past weekend.)
Normally, a movie with such poor box office would not receive story coverage on Box Office Mojo, but the furor over The Undefeated calls for an injection of truth.
Even before The Undefeated bottomed out in its second weekend, the movie was a bust in its first weekend, but its boosters latched onto two stats: per-theater average and ranking among political documentaries. The classic tactics of movie spin include bragging about per-theater average and declaring a high ranking in a niche category. The funny thing is that Undefeated's opening didn't rate highly on either front, making the spin extra-egregious.
Within the minor political documentary sub-genre, The Undefeated's $6,532 opening weekend per-theater average ranked 33rd out of the 91 limited openings tracked over the past 30 years, normalized for ticket price inflation. Among all documentaries, it was in the middle of the pack. Hardly worthy of hyperbole. Even if it had little to no advertising, Undefeated had far more media coverage than most other political documentaries and independent releases could ever dream of. The awareness was there.
Undefeated boosters ran with the notion that the movie's opening had the "second highest per-theater average of the weekend, behind only Harry Potter," but the movie was actually sixth in that metric. They also latched onto a press release about how The Undefeated averaged "above $11,000 in top markets." But averages are naturally higher in top markets (that's why they're "top markets") and, without context (how it compared to other movies' grosses in those markets), that was a meaningless statistic.
It's extremely myopic to believe that having one of the higher per-theater averages on a given weekend means a movie is a success, and The Undefeated's second weekend bore that out. Indeed, "per-theater average" is one of the most overrated stats. For limited releases, the most receptive locations are cherry-picked with the purpose to impress with a high per-theater average in order to book more markets. The fewer the theaters, the easier it is to have a higher average.
To put these numbers into further perspective: The Undefeated's ten theaters on opening weekend yielded 159 showings. Using the current average ticket price of $7.86, that means the movie played to an estimated 52 people per average showing or at about one-fifth to one-quarter capacity. In the movie's second weekend, which had 211 showings, the per-showing average attendance dropped to 15.
The reporting on The Undefeated has been reminiscent of Atlas Shrugged: Part I, but Undefeated's box office makes Atlas look like a blockbuster with its paltry $4.6 million run. Atlas followed a similar pattern: modest opening, then a big drop in its second weekend, despite an expansion. At least, there hasn't been media gushing as notoriously wrong as when Fox News Channel's Fox and Friends chatted up Atlas as a success after the movie had fallen off the map. (Though this latest puff piece comes close.)
Ultimately, total gross and attendance are what matter, and The Undefeated's too small to be of any consequence. Beyond the converted, why would anyone want to see this movie? Palin has been so plentiful in the media since 2008 that a documentary about her was, at best, redundant to the vast majority of people. And, certainly, an unabashedly pro-Palin documentary wasn't going to preach beyond the choir. Proselytization is not a box office draw.
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• 'Atlas Shrugged: Part I' Derails
• Politcal Documentaries at the Box Office