NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Michael Moore couldn't have asked for a better buildup to "Fahrenheit 9/11," the anti-Bush flick expected to break box office records for a documentary, if he had tried. That's assuming, of course, he isn't trying.
Or is he?
Given the huge hype surrounding the controversial film, due out in theaters next Friday, some industry observers are left to wonder if this isn't just movie marketing at its best (and cheapest).
"It's fascinating the way he's playing the media," said Brandon Gray, the editor and publisher of box office tracking firm BoxOfficeMojo.com.
The latest: When the Motion Picture Association of America gave the film an R rating, the film's distributors first publicly vowed to fight for a PG-13 rating. On Tuesday they held a press conference in Manhattan to announce that former New York governor Mario Cuomo, now a private lawyer in Manhattan, would lobby the MPAA on their behalf to get the rating.
The showmanship followed a riveting chain of events surrounding the release of "Fahrenheit 9/11," a scathing portrayal of the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
It all started when news broke in early May that The Walt Disney Co (DIS: up $0.07 to $24.94, Research, Estimates)., whose Miramax film studio financed the $6 million movie, had refused to distribute the movie, apparently because Disney CEO Michael Eisner did not want any part of an election-year partisan attack.
After several days of damning headlines, Eisner told analysts during an earnings call that Moore and Miramax chiefs Bob and Harvey Weinstein had known for a year that Disney wouldn't release the movie and that he had offered to sell the movie rights to the Weinsteins or another distributor.
Eisner's apparent obstinacy stoked further speculation about the film's fate and behind-the-scenes sniping between Eisner and the Weinsteins, who also happen to be locked in negotiations with Disney over a new employment contract. The flames were fanned yet again when "Fahrenheit 9/11" captured the Cannes Film Festival's top prize, the highly-coveted Palme d'Or, in May.
Shortly after that triumph, the Weinsteins bought the film's distribution rights at cost and announced plans to release the movie, along with Lions Gate Films (LGF: down $0.18 to $6.48, Research, Estimates) and IFC Films, June 25 in as many as 1,000 theaters. That would make "Fahrenheit 9/11" the most widely-distributed documentary ever, displacing "Tupac: Resurrection," which made its way to more than 800 theaters following its release late last year.
Throughout the entire "Fahrenheit 9/11" brouhaha, Michael Moore has never been far from the front of a news camera. While his confrontational style is well known from the publicity generated by his prior films, "Roger and Me" and "Bowling for Columbine," Moore is winning plaudits from observers for a performance that they suggest could itself win awards -- if not an Oscar, then maybe a Clio.
"They're making a big stink out of every little thing," said Gray. "It seems [Moore] is working the industry better than Mel Gibson did for 'The Passion of the Christ.'"
Moore could very well be borrowing from Gibson's Passion playbook. Make a movie about a hugely controversial topic. Make sure the people most likely to be offended hear about it. And then sit back as the outraged hordes flock to the box office.
Unfortunately, for all the hype surrounding "Fahrenheit 9/11," it's not going to come close to the $370 million in domestic and $238 million in overseas box office receipts that Gibson's violent portrayal of the death of Jesus has reaped since its February release.
That said, Moore's latest is expected to be the top-grossing documentary of all time, surpassing the $21.6 million that his "Bowling for Columbine" raked domestically following its November 2002 release.
This is unquestionably the golden age of documentary filmmaking. Eight of the 10 top-grossing documentaries have been released in the last two years, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
To his credit, Moore has directed three of them.
Peter Wilkes, a spokesman for "Fahrenheit 9/11" distributor Lions Gate, cautioned against giving Moore's publicity too much credit for the film's near-certain success.
"Although Michael Moore and his team, and Lions Gate and IFC and their marketing teams, are all working hard to promote and publicize the film, this is a film that really does sell itself," said Wilkes, noting the number of standing ovations and rave movie reviews the film has already received.
No doubt it helps too that Moore's critics have given the flick a big helping hand.
On MoveAmericaForward.org., Bush supporters label Moore a "domestic enemy" and urge the public to pressure theater owners not to show the film.
|An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the network that cancelled the Reagan movie. We regret the error.
This is the same group that managed to scuttle plans by CBS last year to broadcast a made-for-TV movie about Nancy and Ronald Reagan.
But unlike television broadcasters, theater owners don't answer to advertisers. Their job is to draw in the crowds.
And there's nothing like the smell of controversy to do just that.