Over on The Hot Blog, David Poland has the weekend box office numbers up, and the one thing that popped out at me, probably because I just saw and reviewed the film last week, is that Lake of Fire, which opened at Film Forum in NYC this weekend, did not do nearly as well as might have been expected. There's some discussion in the comments on Poland's post speculating on the whys and wherefores of the film's less-than-stellar opening, the main gist of which is that either the film did not appeal to people because no one wants to see the abortion process on a big screen while they're munching their popcorn, or because the film doesn't take a side on the abortion issue, and people who are passionate about it on one side or the other do not want to see the other side treated fairly.

I pondered this for a while this morning as I lingered over my Monday morning coffee. As I noted in my review of the film, Lake of Fire does give both sides of the debate equal weight, but I also think that the way each side will be perceived is in the eye of the beholder. I could see the film playing well in red states, because the film doesn't portray right-to-lifers (on the whole) as a bunch of nutcases. Sure, there are some some interesting folks in there, but there are also attractive women in there talking about why they are pro-life. And even the folks that a liberal might view as off-their-rocker (such as Assembly of God preacher John Burt and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry) would probably be viewed by a lot of fundamentalist Christians as good, God-fearing guys who are simply passionate about their beliefs on the subject.

Perhaps it's because the film opened at Film Forum in NYC, and the film maybe doesn't play as well to the pro-choice side of the table. It's disconcerting, after all, to see what abortion actually looks like; if your beliefs around abortion are based on holding it firmly in your mind that a fetus is just tissue and an abortion a medical procedure no more morally meaningful than an appendectomy, you may be a little turned off by seeing a doctor measuring a tiny severed foot. The more graphic dead-baby abortion footage in the film is mostly from later-term abortions, but we also see abortion from the doctor's perspective, planted firmly between the stirrup-splayed legs of naked women. That graphic display of female genitalia could turn away the really religious viewers -- after all, we all know there's nothing sexier and more alluring than a half-naked woman, even one who's being displayed while having a medical procedure performed.

Generally, though, the film plays better to the pro-life side, who can at least hold the film up as showing what abortion looks like. Some folks in places like liberal-minded, cinepheliac Seattle might come out to one of the Landmark theaters or Northwest Film Forum to see Lake of Fire purely for its intellectual value, but I can't really imagine the hard-core pro-choice crowd coming out in droves to see abortion displayed so graphically; even though it's artistically rendered in black-and-white, it may just be a little too cinéma vérité for many people. If the film just showed the pro-lifers as a bunch of religiously fanatical men and uptight church ladies who probably never have sex anyhow using the abortion issue as a way to keep women from being free sexual beings, perhaps it would play more to the blue states -- but that's not really the film's focus.

I was a bit surprised to hear that Lake of Fire isn't slated to play in Oklahoma City any time soon. If I was marketing this film, I would be sending press kits to every Megachurch in flyover country (and I'd do a marketing campaign specifically to Focus on the Family, which is making abortion the lynchpin issue of the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2008). I'd offer group discounts to church leaders who would arrange mass field trips for their congregations on Saturday afternoons, or perhaps on Sunday afternoons between the morning and evening services. I'd promote churches taking high school youth groups to see the film as a Wednesday night field trip, and then to use the film as a launching pad for encouraging those teens to get active in the pro-life movement around the upcoming elections (you'd have to address the nudity in the film, but most older teens could probably handle it).

I'd encourage church groups to come out and demonstrate in front of theaters showing the film in support of the pro-life side -- then I'd simultaneously market the film to the pro-choice demographic: put fliers in Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics, offer group discounts to college chapters of pro-choice feminist groups, GLBT associations, and encourage them to come out and demonstrate in front of theaters in support of their pro-choice position. I'd push the film to those groups as a critical film that shows undeniably how the pro-life movement is about controlling women and sexuality, and push the film as important in light of the upcoming presidential election to that group, too. The film plays to both sides of the issue, so maximize that and market to both sides as well. You just can't maintain a polite distance when marketing a film about abortion.

As a film, Lake of Fire takes a pretty objective stance on the issue, but abortion is undeniably both political and polarizing, so why not market to that reality? Have the screenings, and follow them with debates from local politicians, or get a pro-life leader and a pro-choice leader up there alongside director Tony Kaye for a post-show panel discussion. Get people protesting in front of theaters, and you generate the kind of publicity and interest in your film that money can't buy. Maybe then, Lake of Fire would generate real interest outside the realms of those of us who watch these films for their artistic merit and the sake of our end-of-year and Oscar lists, and screenings of the film in both red and blue states would be packed.