Sicko’s Box Office Health?

I tried to stay away, but it’s Friday and I don’t feel like working on my other projects. On Thursday, Karina addressed the debate about whether or not Michael Moore’s health care doc, Sicko, was a “box office success.” She points out that the conservative film bloggers over at Libertas have been pushing the idea that Sicko is a box office “disaster,” comparing the film’s per screen take to the Robin Williams comedy, License to Wed (according to Karina, Sicko actually is taking in 20% more per screen than License).

Such a comparison is misleading, at best. First, Sicko has been released with a far more gradual roll-out than License to Wed, or pretty much any studio product for that matter. It wasn’t even due to hit theaters in Fayetteville until this coming weekend (popular demand brought the film in a week earlier), and I’d imagine the same is true for other medium-sized cities. Because Sicko’s audience is more likely to be older, it’s also a film that is arguably less dependent on opening weekends than most studio films. Second, the folks at Libertas only cite domestic box office take in their attempts to define the film as a financial albatross for the Weinsteins. No mention of DVD sales or other “ancillary” income (which will obviously change these numbers). I’m not suggesting that Sicko will come close to the box office success of Fahrenheit 9/11, but that film’s success will be difficult to duplicate for any documentary, in part because of the unique conditions when it was released–Moore’s film gave license to criticize publicly a war that was becoming increasing unpopular, although many people were still hesitant to speak out against it. For many people, going to see Fahrenheit 9/11 was, in a sense, a political act in a way Sicko cannot really duplicate.

As Karina observes, a more valid comparison would be the Davis Guggenheim documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (starring a certain former VP), and Sicko’s box office numbers do compare favorably to last year’s blockbuster doc, with Sicko taking in $11 million in three weeks, numbers it took An Inconvenient Truth six weeks to achieve (see also indieWIRE’s Steve Ramos on this point). It’s worth pointing out that Sicko is already the sixth highest grossing documentary–and fourth highest grossing “political” documentary–of all time. Still, I’m not oblivious to the fact that these are not the box office numbers that Moore or the Weinsteins would want, and the numbers, so far, are not living up to Moore’s “star” persona or the amount of money invested in promoting the film. The film is not a “huge” hit, but it is in the ballpark with most other Moore documentaries (with the obvious exception of F9/11).

But I think the discussion of the film’s box office take misses the point, to some extent. By defining “success” in terms of box office take, Libertas ignores the ripple effect of the film within public discourse about health care in the United States. As Fayetteville Observer columnist Myron Pitts observes (I happened to see the film with Myron), the real point of Sicko is to challenge our current health care policies, and the film seems to be doing just that. Moore has been able to convey the twisted logic of HMOs, which put profit over medical care, and more importantly, he has challenged the rhetoric that “socializing” medicine would be a bad thing. After all, the fire and police departments are “socialized.”

The logic of using “the market,” in this case box office take, to determine whether a message is endorsed by a broader public is slippery at best. Just because Moore’s film isn’t bringing in audiences in record number does not mean that people are not unhappy about the health care system as it currently exists. Again, I think a comparison with An Inconvenient Truth is helpful. Even though the film “only” grossed $24 million, the film has been a catalyst for further conversation about global warming and about our stewardship of the environment. I ‘ll admit that I’m somewhat skeptical about the degree to which documentaries can change the world, but it’s probably fair to say that we wouldn’t be re-evaluating our health care system with this much energy if Moore hadn’t made this film, and in the long run isn’t that what matters?

4 Comments »

  1. Lambert Lorette Said,

    July 29, 2007 @ 8:05 pm

    Hi – I’m pretty much on the same page with your comments. I think with all the hype and Michael’s prominence these days, it would have been better to open accross the board immediately, rather than the gradual thing…

    Maybe “Serious Sickness” would have been a better title. “Sicko” clever, and has the fun joke, but then not everyone is clever or witty. This is more of a serious matter for many of the audience.

    The film is actually a call to revolution, and I think a somewhat successful one, because it states, and makes you feel, if you are of a certain ilk, “We are afraid of our own government, we are failing to even have health care and inexpensive education, we are not looking after our own people, and who are we? This is a call to act. I thought the film was great, a little slow at the start, but full of all the right stuff, including humor. For my money, Michael delivered, as he always does. I personally found the film refreshing and invigorating. Cheers, L

  2. Lambert Lorette Said,

    July 29, 2007 @ 8:14 pm

    corrections: is clever, instead of clever, – not an illegal revolution, but a call to change the way we are passively responding to government. A call to stand up to government wrong doing, and do something about it – vote, march, write to congressmen, etc. just as the people do in France.

  3. Chuck Said,

    July 29, 2007 @ 10:26 pm

    I think a few people were probably somewhat uncertain about this film given the sober subject matter (not that the Iraq War isn’t a sober subject). No matter what, the film seems to have sparked a conversation about health care, and it will be very hard for 2008 candidates to ignore the issue.

    And I think the larger point of using France as an example of democratic protest (and holding government accountable) is a good one, as well.

  4. The Chutry Experiment » Chipping Away at SCHIP Said,

    October 12, 2007 @ 10:56 am

    […] about whether or not SCHIP should exist or whether or not working- and middle-class families are able to afford adequate health care are left unanswered. Here, I’m generally in agreement with Krugman, and I’m not sure I […]

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