On this lazy August weekend, who went to the movies? People who don’t like the President of the United States.
Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables 2 may have repeated as box-office champ, becoming the first R-rated picture to do so since Sly’s first Expendables chapter two summers ago, but the biggest noise was made by Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary, 2016 Obama’s America. According to preliminary studio estimates, the anti-Barack doc took in $6.2 million at North American theaters. That’s just below the $6.3 million earned by the weekend’s top debut movie, Premium Rush, which was playing on more than twice as many screens (2,255 to 1,091). 2016 led a surge of indie product for niche audiences, as Sleepwalk With Me and Samsara registered gigantic per-screen averages.
(READ: Corliss’s review of 2016 Obama’s America)
It was a bad weekend, however, to open a mainstream movie — for the first time in more than a decade, no new film cracked the $10 million threshold — and a truly rotten week for cyclists. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency stripped seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong of his titles; and Premium Rush, a well-reviewed action picture about a Manhattan bike messenger pedaling for his life, failed to meet even modest expectations. Filmed two years ago, and released now in hopes of cashing in on its star Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s crucial role in the megahit The Dark Knight Rises, the movie attracted a demographic — 55% male, 67% over 25 — similar to that of the Stallone sequel, and earned a shruggable B rating in the CinemaScore survey of early moviegoers.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Premium Rush)
The poor showing of the Gordon-Levitt film meant that, for one of the rare times in recent box-office history, the top six spots were occupied by holdovers; even the Disney’s nonhit The Odd Life of Timothy Green made more money in its second weekend than Premium Rush did in its first. The results were gloomier still for another chase film, Hit and Run, starring Dax Shepard and his real-life fiancée Kristen Bell, which finished 10th and pulled a sad C-plus CinemaScore rating. The paranormal thriller Apparition, dumped by Warner Bros. into 810 haunted houses, managed only $2.95 million for 12th place.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of The Odd Life of Timothy Green)
In this parched landscape, the bundle amassed by 2016 Obama’s America looked all the more imposing. D’Souza’s documentary, which portrays the President as a kind of anticolonialist stealth agent who wants to “downsize America,” has now bagged $9.1 million, passing Ben Stein’s anti-evolution Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed ($7.7 million) as the all-time top-grossing right-wing doc. 2016 is now sixth among all political docs; the slots above 2016 are filled by four Michael Moore movies (Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, Bowling for Columbine and Capitalism: A Love Story) and Al Gore‘s An Inconvenient Truth. The D’Souza film won’t come close to Fahrenheit 9/11, which grossed nearly $120 million in the months before the 2004 election, but it could challenge the other four, all of which finished in the $14 million to $25 million range.
(READ: Mary Corliss’s first look at Fahrenheit 9/11)
Produced by the mini-indie Rocky Mountain Pictures, which also hatched the anti-Gore documentary, An Inconsistent Truth, the Obama movie tapped grassroots devotees for much of its $2.2 million gross on Friday, when it was the No. 4 film. “Exhibitors are reporting busloads arriving at theaters around the country in pre-organized trips,” Nikki Finke wrote that night on her Deadline Hollywood blog. “It also employed much of the same marketing techniques used to garner attention and support for faith-based films, understandable since the audience is overlapping.” D’Souza promoted the movie on several Fox News Channel shows and won an endorsement from talk-show giant Limbaugh — D’Souza’s own premium Rush. The imminence of the Republican National Convention also helped nudge the film into the spotlight. But the real trick will be for 2016 Obama’s America to lure audiences outside its political core, as Fahrenheit 9/11 did eight years ago, when, love it or hate it, people just had to see it.
(READ: Last week’s box office-report on 2016 Obama’s America)
In another indie publicity blitz, comedian Mike Birbiglia and This American Life’s Ira Glass were everywhere on NPR last week flacking Sleepwalk With Me. Birbiglia had already turned his ordeal with REM behavior disorder into an off-Broadway show, an album, a TV special, a book and an episode on Glass’s popular radio show. Now, produced by Glass, it’s a movie comedy. Playing at one theater, the IFC Center in Manhattan, Sleepwalk earned $65,000. Stats savant Tom Brueggemann of Thompson on Hollywood rightly pegged this as “a sensational opening… the specialized marketing success story of the year so far.” The movie may not become the year’s top-grossing movie, as Glass and Birbiglia promised in a YouTube response to Avengers director Josh Whedon’s puckish takedown, but it’s off to a speed-walking start.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Sleepwalk With Me)
Hardly less sensational was the reception for Samsara, Ron Fricke’s wordless, globe-trotting attempt to display, and evoke, a higher state of consciousness. The movie, a spiritual sequel of sorts to Fricke’s 1992 Baraka, opened to $73,000 on just two screens, one in Manhattan, the other in Seattle. A visual treat, this 70mm movie promises not eye candy but eye Communion, a wholly holy experience — a “guided meditation.” Samsara and 2016 may have little in common, but the two documentaries made this dog-day period a box-office weekend to remember.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. The Expendables 2, $13.5 million; $52.3 million, second week
2. The Bourne Legacy, $9.3 million; $85.5 million, third week
3. ParaNorman, $8.5 million; $28.3 million, second week
4. The Campaign, $7.4 million; $64.5 million, third week
5. The Dark Knight Rises, $7.15 million; $422.2 million, sixth week
6. The Odd Life of Timothy Green, $7.1 million; $27.1 million, second week
7. Premium Rush, $6.3 million, first weekend
8. 2016 Obama’s America, $6.2 million; $9.1 million, seventh week
9. Hope Springs, $6 million; $45 million, third week
10. Hit and Run, $4.7 million, first three days; $5.9 million, first five days