A recent Gallup poll showed 75 percent of voters are paying “a lot” of attention to the Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton presidential election, an unprecedented level of public interest. Presidential debates consistently notch 50 million viewers or more, and the first presidential debate in September and October broke the all-time debate viewership record with 84 million viewers. Films about elections, whether based on real or fictional races, are a Hollywood staple and include such acclaimed pictures as All the President’s Men and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Yet films about political elections have rarely made much money at the box office in recent years. They have varied in genres from dramas to comedies to “dramadies” and have been released during various points in the year. Yet a Boxoffice Pro analysis of such films made since the year 2000 finds that none has made more than $100 million. To be fair, many were produced on mid-range budgets, indicating that perhaps studios did not always expect them to earn buckets of cash. Still, there are mid-budget or even low-budget films that make more than $100 million every year—yet these didn’t.
Why not? What could Hollywood do to better tap into the American public’s high level of interest in actual presidential elections?
Three election films that earned below $50 million, adjusted for inflation
Kevin Costner starred in the comedy about a New Mexico man who, thanks to a technical snafu at his polling place on Election Day, gets to break New Mexico’s popular-vote tie. He thus effectively gets to choose the next president, forcing the two candidates to make personal appeals to Bud Johnson instead of the entire country. Despite the clever premise, Costner was well past his prime by August 2008, and the film received very weak reviews, ultimately grossing a poor $16.2 million and opening in sixth place at the weekend box office. The timing, intended to coincide with the run-up to the 2008 election, may have actually inadvertently hurt the film, as Obama’s groundbreaking candidacy and John McCain’s VP choice, Sarah Palin, caused reality to surpass entertainment that year. Though the film’s plot was clearly meant to call to mind Florida’s razor-thin election margin in 2000, New Mexico—considered a swing state early in 2008 after having voted Republican in 2004 but Democratic in 2000—subsequently voted Democratic by double-digit margins in both 2008 and 2012 and is now considered reliably blue.
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The February 2004 comedy starred Gene Hackman as a popular retiring two-term president who moves to a small town and decides to run for mayor against a lifelong resident and local hardware store owner played by Ray Romano. The premise was original and engaging: who should the town’s residents vote for, the greatly beloved former president or the man they’d grown up with and who knew their concerns firsthand? With horrible reviews, including an abysmal 13 percent from Rotten Tomatoes today, the film made only $14.4 million. Its offbeat title probably didn’t do it any favors either—offbeat movies can do well, but usually they have more run-of-the-mill titles. Romano was one of the most popular television stars at the time with his hit show Everybody Loves Raymond, but his relatable personality wasn’t able to translate into movie stardom. (Although others such as Kevin James have made a similar jump.)
The Ides of March
This drama directed by and starring George Clooney alongside Ryan Gosling focused on a presidential front-runner and his young campaign staffer who discovers the candidate is having an affair. Despite receiving good reviews, the October 2011 film ended up with $40.9 million, a fair if middling total. It also opened in 2,199 theaters, low for a nationwide release, which hampered its box office potential—Clooney hadn’t had a wide release in so few theaters since Syriana back in 2005. Clooney and Gosling are two of this decade’s A-list actors who often choose projects with low revenue potential. Unlike the other films on this list, Ides was considered more of a prestige film and awards contender than box office dynamite, so its results weren’t necessarily seen as a disappointment.
Three election films that earned $50-$99 million, adjusted for inflation
Man of the Year
Robin Williams starred as the host of a late-night political satire show who runs for president, but the film suffered from poor word of mouth, ranking only 21 percent on Rotten Tomatoes today. It earned only $37.3 million after its October 2006 release, and although it was intended to be timed shortly before the midterm elections, it was also the furthest point from both the preceding and subsequent presidential elections. Williams was a decade past his peak as a box office draw. The lead character was modeled on figures such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher—the former two in particular being arguably at the peak of their popularity around 2006, shortly after Entertainment Weekly named Stewart and his cast (including Colbert) as their Entertainer of the Year in 2004. But it’s important to remember that such shows, beloved as they were by the media and other opinion leaders, were actually consistently near the bottom among late night shows by viewership. The film also took a bizarre and disjointed turn into a half-thriller, half-romance in its second half, which put many people off.
Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis played two men vying for a North Carolina congressional seat in this August 2012 comedy. The film was likely hurt by its poor reviews as well as its story line, which revolved around the U.S. House of Representatives. The other films analyzed here all deal with a presidential election, but according to a 2013 Washington Post article, only 35 percent of people can name their own member of Congress. Ferrell and Galifianakis, both Obama supporters, deliberately projected a more nonpartisan image during the run-up to and marketing for the film—Ferrell appeared in an Obama campaign ad only after the movie’s theatrical run had ended, while Galifiankis’s legendary Between Two Ferns interview with Obama wasn’t until 2014—though it’s difficult to ascertain whether that resulted in a more bipartisan audience. The film’s $86.9 million total was decent but lower than that of some the stars’ comedies from the previous few years, including The Other Guys and Step Brothers for Ferrell and The Hangover Part II and Due Date for Galifianakis.
Head of State
The comedy directed by and starring Chris Rock at the peak of his popularity wasn’t considered a great movie then, but it holds up especially poorly now given the premise. The movie was about a African American man who runs for and wins the presidency despite punctuating his campaign speeches with vernacular like “That ain’t right” and dancing to rap music at state dinners. Debuting the year before the rise of Barack Obama and five years prior to his ascension to the presidency, the film’s primary source of humor relied on the presumed long shot that a largely white country would unite behind a black presidential nominee, especially one familiar with street slang or rap—yet that’s precisely what happened shortly thereafter. But without the foreknowledge of Obama, the film still made $38.1 million after its March 2003 release. At the time, before this decade’s surge of March blockbusters like The Hunger Games, Alice in Wonderland, and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, March was often considered a dumping ground for bad movies. In addition, the film arguably wasn’t as “political” as most other films on this list, instead relying more on race and sex jokes—often a winning formula for Hollywood comedies, but perhaps not for a political movie.
What about political documentaries? Political documentaries, considering their low budgets, can make a profit even with a middling gross. The high mark in the genre was Fahrenheit 9/11 back in 2004, when it earned an astonishing $166.2 million. The most successful political documentaries in the mid-2000s were left-leaning in nature, such as Al Gore’s climate-crisis warning An Inconvenient Truth.
Since then, the ideological tide has turned. The most financially successful political documentaries in the past few years have either been conservative—such as Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America and Hillary’s America—or at least not left-leaning, such as Citizenfour about Edward Snowden, which was critical of the mass surveillance undertaken and supported by both major parties. In other words, the best way to make money as a political documentary is apparently to be the party that doesn’t currently occupy the White House. If Trump wins, perhaps we can expect a resurgence of successful and politically progressive documentaries once again.
Which films about politics do best at the box office? The ones not about elections.
Interestingly, the highest-grossing films since 2000 that were primarily about politics were those about a president in office rather than one campaigning for the position. This seems to contradict the oft-repeated truism that Americans usually pay more attention to the “horse race” of political campaigns than to politicians’ actions once actually in office. But films such as The Butler and Lincoln both made more than $100 million while focusing on real Oval Office drama, whether during the Cold War and civil rights eras for the former or the Civil War for the latter.
That being said, both of those films received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Other films about presidents in office, whether real or fictional, haven’t always fared as well, such as W. about the George W. Bush administration. Even recent action films—traditionally the highest-grossing genre—about fictional presidents in office haven’t always done that well relative to pre-release expectations from box office analysts, such as White House Down and Vantage Point, which were considered fine but not great by audiences.
So what’s the takeaway? The biggest correlation to success for political films does not appear to be release date or genre or star power but perceived quality. The political movies that earned the most were the ones actually considered to be excellent films by critics and audiences, like Lincoln, The Butler, and Fahrenheit 9/11. Moreover, those films actually dealt intelligently with politics and governance versus the horse race of the campaign. And they were about real issues faced by the president—not merely comedies, thrillers, or action movies about a president or candidate.
Let this provide a glimmer of hope to those who worry that Hollywood no longer produces enough material of quality or that audiences won’t flock to anything too intellectual or substantive. Far from being death blows to a film’s box office chances, those traits may indeed be a political film’s best hope for box office success.
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