April 11, 2005,
EDITOR'S NOTE: NR White House Correspondent Byron York's new book, The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, details how MoveOn.org, George Soros, Michael Moore, 527 groups, Al Franken, and other Democratic activists built a powerful new network to attack President Bush and his initiatives. One of the key strategies of those activists in 2004 was the effort to create an impression in the public mind that there was a wave of anti-Bush anger sweeping over the country, which would inevitably lead to the president's defeat in last November's election. The following excerpt shows how radical filmmaker Michael Moore tried to make that happen.
In early August 2004, Karl Rove, President Bush’s top political advisor, was having lunch with a small group of journalists at the Oval Room, a restaurant across Lafayette Square from the White House. The talk off the record, unless Rove agreed to be quoted was about strategy in the presidential race. Was Kerry’s emphasis on his Vietnam record a mistake? Was Bush going to offer a full-scale defense of the war in Iraq? Would he push issues like Social Security reform? After the discussion touched on a number of heavy topics, I asked Rove what he thought of Michael Moore’s blastingly anti-Bush movie, Fahrenheit 9/11. Had it had an effect on the presidential race?
“It’s an artful piece of propaganda,” Rove said.
Was that all? Had he seen the picture?
“I plead guilty to violating the copyright laws of the United States by watching a bootleg DVD,” Rove answered with a grin. “I refuse to enrich [Moore],” he added, giving the clear impression that he had a rather low opinion of the filmmaker.
With a little more prodding, Rove said he wasn’t worried about the picture and did not see it playing a substantial role in the election. But he had watched it at a time when some others on the White House staff were saying they would not see it. Rove was too careful a man, and his mind too wide-ranging, not to want to judge for himself.
Moore would undoubtedly have been delighted by the image of Karl Rove peering at a fuzzy bootleg of Fahrenheit 9/11.What publicity material that would have made! At the time, Moore was traveling around the country, promoting the movie as George W. Bush’s worst nightmare, generating an enormous amount of free coverage in the process. The point other than to make money for Michael Moore was to create the impression that Fahrenheit 9/11 had touched off an explosion of anti-Bush activism across the nation.
At least for a while, the plan appeared to be working. Fahrenheit 9/11 did an impressive business, earning far more than any other documentary in history. And many reporters and analysts, spurred on by Moore and his publicity team, interpreted the movie’s success as evidence of a deeply felt and growing anti-Bush sentiment among the public, not just in the blue states, where the movie might have been expected to do well, but also in the red states won by George W. Bush in 2000.
But a little more than four months later, after Election Day, things looked much different. Not only had Moore’s movie not propelled the Democratic candidate to victory, but some Democrats wondered privately whether Fahrenheit 9/11 and all the attendant fuss might have done more harm than good. What went wrong?
The answer, although no one beyond a few Hollywood executives, and probably Moore himself, knew it at the time, was that Fahrenheit 9/11 never had the sort of national appeal that its maker and its publicists claimed. The truth was just the opposite; deep inside the dense compilations of audience research figures that are used by movie studios to chart a film’s performance was evidence that Fahrenheit 9/11’s appeal was narrowly limited to those areas that were already solidly anti-Bush.Moore’s daily pronouncements about the movie’s success in pro-Bush areas, and the growing anti-Bush movement it was supposedly engendering, were little more than wishful thinking.
In the end, Karl Rove was right. There was no need to worry.
SOLD OUT IN FAYETTEVILLEOn June 28, a couple of days after Fahrenheit 9/11’s premiere, Moore spoke to thousands of people via an Internet hookup at “Turn Up the Heat: A National Town Meeting on Fahrenheit 9/11,” organized by MoveOn. “It was the number-one movie in every single red state in America,” Moore said, as cheers went up in the room in which I was watching with about two hundred MoveOn supporters. “Every single state that Bush won in 2000, it was the number-one film in it.” The news seemed ominous for the president; a real sense of excitement and hope filled the room. “I’m sure when the White House read that this morning, that was one of their worst nightmares come true," Moore said.
Press accounts added to the idea that Fahrenheit 9/11 was winning over Bush supporters. The day before Moore spoke to MoveOn, the Los Angeles Times ran a story headlined “‘Fahrenheit’ Is Casting a Wide Net at Theaters: Anti-Bush Sentiment Runs High at Showings of the Documentary, Which Has Opened with a Strong Box-Office from 868 Screens.” The story began with a woman, a supporter of the president, who had gotten into stinging political arguments with her anti-Bush college student son. The son urged her to see Fahrenheit 9/11, and she emerged from the movie with tears in her eyes. “My emotions are just...,” she said, unable to continue. “I feel like we haven’t seen the whole truth before.” The Times wrote of another man, a well-to-do retired insurance agent, who described himself as a lifelong Republican but who, after seeing the movie, vowed to leave the GOP. “I won’t be voting for a Republican presidential candidate this time,” he told the Times.
Summing up the emerging conventional wisdom, Time magazine wrote, “You would have expected Moore’s movie to play well in the liberal big cities, and it is doing so. But the film is also touching the heart of the heartland. In Bartlett, Tenn., a Memphis suburb, the rooms at Stage Road Cinema showing Fahrenheit 9/11 have been packed with viewers who clap, boo, laugh and cry nearly on cue. Even the dissenters are impressed. When the lights came up after a showing last week, one gent rose from his seat and said grudgingly, ‘It’s bulls**t, but I gotta admit it was done well.’” Calling Fahrenheit 9/11 “a shaping force in the presidential campaign,” Time wrote that the film was attracting “the curious, the hostile, the indifferent. . . . [Moore is] doing what he does best pestering to get them into theaters. And then to the polls.”
As publicity for Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore himself could not have written better stories. And he did seem to write some of them. “It sold out in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home of Fort Bragg,” he told the group at the MoveOn town meeting. “It sold out in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It got a standing ovation in Greensboro, North Carolina.” In a matter of hours, those quotes found their way into news reports, feeding the impression that Fahrenheit 9/11 was exciting audiences everywhere, made up of all kinds of viewers. And that impression was amplified by a separate campaign, coordinated by MoveOn, encouraging the group’s members to pack early screenings and write pro-Moore letters to newspapers, all of which was designed to create the sense that the movie was a phenomenon sweeping the country.
But was that really true? Certainly the picture had a spectacular opening weekend for a documentary. But Moore always claimed a special status for the movie, that it was much more than a documentary. (He withdrew it from Academy Award consideration in the documentary category, opting instead to position it unsuccessfully, as it turned out for a Best Picture nomination.) And as a film phenomenon, Fahrenheit 9/11’s opening was not nearly as spectacular as Moore claimed.
To make a comparison: Which film had a better opening weekend, Fahrenheit 9/11 or Barbershop 2: Back in Business? The correct answer is Barbershop. In terms of opening receipts, Mean Girls also beat Fahrenheit 9/11, as did Starsky & Hutch, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, Alien vs. Predator, 50 First Dates, and several others. The year’s big hits, like Shrek 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Spiderman 2 all had openings between four and five times the size of Fahrenheit 9/11’s. In the end, Fahrenheit 9/11 had the 32nd-best opening weekend of 2004, taking in $23,920,637 in its first days.
Still, that did not answer the question of whether Fahrenheit 9/11's appeal was nationwide, as Moore had claimed. The reporters and commentators talking about the film could not have known the answer to that question at the time they were confidently asserting that the picture was indeed doing well in red states as well as blue. Sold out in Tulsa? A standing ovation in Greensboro? That sort of thing was anecdotal evidence at best. To learn how well the film really did would take weeks and would require a detailed look at its performance everywhere it played. The newspapers and magazines didn’t have time for that.
But the movie studios did. Motion picture companies keep track of ticket sales data in excruciating detail. For any given movie, they know who bought tickets, where, and why. They do research not just on a national basis, or a market-by-market basis, or a city-by-city basis, but on a screen-by-screen basis. Did Shrek 2 underperform at AMC’s Crestwood Plaza 10 theaters outside St. Louis? They know the answer. Did Mean Girls overperform at Loews Foothills Cinemas 15 in Tucson? They know that, too.
But the public doesn’t hear much about it. Studios routinely release box-office figures the numbers are part of the horserace reporting that goes on every opening weekend but executives prefer to keep audience information confidential. That information is quite valuable to them for planning a movie’s advertising campaign, as well as mapping out the releases of future pictures and comparing one picture’s performance against another’s. And releasing it would inevitably lead to more questions from exhibitors and the press. Why is this movie doing so badly in Orlando? Why is that picture a hit in Denver?
Looking for answers to similar questions about Fahrenheit 9/11, I came across a source in the movie business who had access to the details of the film’s box-office business, and of other releases’ performances, as well. He provided me with an Excel spreadsheet of numbers compiled by Nielsen EDI, a division of the famed Nielsen media measurement firm which revealed a picture of Fahrenheit 9/11’s performance that bore almost no resemblance to Michael Moore’s hype.
First, a few words about how such figures are gathered. Movie studios divide the nation into about 250 different zones called designated market areas, or DMAs. Some, like New York and Boston, are dominated by one city. Others, like Albuquerque/Santa Fe and Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo, are geographical areas that include more than one town. The markets were originally designed by ACNielsen, which uses them to measure national and local television audiences.
Movie analysts use the same geographic areas, but they do not mark those areas exactly as TV analysts do. West Palm Beach/Fort Pierce, Florida, for example, is the forty-ninth largest television market but the thirty-first-largest movie market, meaning that people there tend to watch a lot of films. New York is the biggest television market but the second largest film market, behind Los Angeles. San Francisco is the fifth-largest TV market but the third-largest movie market.
Also, most motion-picture grosses are measured on a North American basis, meaning they include ticket sales in both the United States and Canada. Toronto, for example, is not included in American television ratings but is the fifth-largest DMA for moviegoing.
One key measure studios apply to a picture’s performance is whether it does better or worse than might be expected in any given DMA. They do that by calculating each DMA’s share of the total North American box office. Los Angeles, for example, accounts for 8.32 percent of the box office for all films, New York for 7.78 percent, and San Francisco for 3.40 percent. If the San Francisco box office for a film accounts for more than 3.40 percent of a film’s total gross, the film is said to have overperformed in San Francisco. If the city accounted for, say, 5.10 percent of a picture’s North American gross, then the film would be said to have overperformed by 50 percent. Studios use those measurements to compare films with one another, and entire film genres with one another. Do action pictures do better in Philadelphia? Romantic comedies in St. Louis? That sort of thing.
Overall, Fahrenheit 9/11 did extremely well in North America’s top eight markets, according to the numbers compiled by Nielsen EDI. The film actually underperformed slightly in the largest market, Los Angeles, down just under 4 percent from the market’s normal DMA share. (That was probably due to the presence of conservative Orange County, which makes up a significant part of the Los Angeles DMA.) But it overperformed in the next seven largest markets. In New York it overperformed by nearly 43 percent; Fahrenheit 9/11 took in 11.12 percent of its total box office in that city alone. It did even better in San Francisco, overperforming by 73 percent, and did above-normal business in Chicago, Toronto (by 79 percent), Philadelphia, Boston (by 49 percent), and Washington DC (by 62 percent).
Fahrenheit 9/11 also did well in Seattle, Montreal, Ottawa, Portland, Oregon, Monterey, California, and Burlington, Vermont. In all, two things stand out from those numbers. One is that the picture overperformed only in blue states, and even then only in the most urban parts of those blue states. And the second is that it did very well in Canada. Fahrenheit 9/11 consistently overperformed in Canadian cities; without that boffo business, the film’s gross would have been significantly smaller than it was.
That’s the upside of the story. The downside revealed by the Nielsen EDI numbers is that Fahrenheit 9/11, far from being the runaway nationwide hit that Moore claimed, underperformed in dozens of markets throughout red states and, most important as far as the presidential election was concerned swing states. Dallas/Fort Worth, the ninth-largest movie market, accounts for 2.07 percent of North American box office but made up just 1.21 percent of Fahrenheit 9/11 box office, for an underperformance of nearly 42 percent. In Phoenix, the tenth-largest market, Fahrenheit 9/11 underperformed by 29 percent. In Houston, ranked twelfth for movies, it underperformed by 38 percent. In Orlando, it underperformed by 38 percent; Tampa-St. Petersburg, by 41 percent; Salt Lake City, by 61 percent.
The list goes on for quite a while: Las Vegas, Raleigh-Durham, San Antonio, Norfolk, Charlotte, Nashville, Memphis, Jacksonville, Flint, Michigan (Michael Moore's home turf), and many others. And in Fayetteville and Tulsa, where Moore boasted that his movie had sold out, Fahrenheit 9/11 underperformed by 41 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
Despite Moore’s PR campaign, the data, which the public did not see at the time, showed that Fahrenheit 9/11 had a very limited appeal. Moore’s claim that his documentary was a “red-state movie” was simply untrue, and all the articles based on its alleged national appeal were, in the end, just hype.