Critics of the film (who had complained about its aesthetic merits as a documentary, not just about its unapologetically one-sided portrait of the polarizing politician) will be able to point to the movie's box office numbers as if to say, "We told you so," while supporters of the movie (and of Palin) will point to its more successful opening weekend and the new ancillary deals as evidence that America is clamoring to see this positive portrayal of Palin. In other words, both sides of the aisle will be able to claim victory while Arc quietly pockets the cash from deals that likely were in place well before this weekend's box office debacle. Everybody wins.
'The Undefeated' debuted in 10 theaters last weekend with ticket sales of $65,132. That's not bad for an independently produced documentary with no advertising that opened on the same weekend as the year's most anticipated blockbuster ('Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2'). The per-screen average of $6,513 suggested that there was untapped demand for the movie that a wider release would profit from. This past weekend, however, it expanded to 14 theaters, yet according to Box Office Mojo it earned just $24,000. That's a decline of 63 percent in weekend sales, and a decline of 74 percent (to $1,714) in per-screen average. (With ticket prices in the U.S. averaging about $8, that means 'Undefeated' played to about 71 people a day this weekend at each theater.)
Maybe the demand hinted at by the first weekend's grosses was illusory, or maybe everyone who wanted to see the film in theaters did, or maybe the movie was never going to attract viewers beyond the choir it was preaching to, or maybe 14 screens isn't really much of a test for a movie about a figure of nationwide interest. Or maybe, when it came to all-American heroes at the multiplex, moviegoers would much see Steve Rogers ('Captain America: The First Avenger' was this weekend's runaway box office winner) than Sarah Palin.
According to The Wrap, Arc announced on Sunday -- even as 'Undefeated' was playing to under-populated auditoriums -- that the movie's PPV and DVD deals were set. Subscribers to DirecTV, Dish Network and Time Warner Cable will be able to watch the movie on pay-per-view starting Sept. 1. On Oct. 4, the DVD will ship 250,000 units, including some "special edition" DVDs with extra footage that will be sold only at Wal-Mart stores.
That $101,000 box office total looks like a failure, then, only if you assume that the theatrical release was supposed to be the film's primary source of revenue instead of a loss leader. It's unlikely that the PPV and DVD deals would have been worked out over the weekend and announced on a Sunday if the cable companies and Wal-Mart had been paying attention to the grosses; it's more likely that the deals were worked out in advance, based on more optimistic early projections.
It's not uncommon for a movie to receive a cursory theatrical booking just to generate reviews that will provide copy for the DVD box and other promotional materials for the home video release. Sure, the reviews for 'The Undefeated' were uniformly negative, but in this case, that's practically a badge of honor. (After all, the first few minutes of the movie are devoted to footage of Palin-bashing by Hollywood comics and other snooty liberal elitists, the sort of people whom Palin supporters are already predisposed to loathe.)
So it looks like Arc's plan all along was to leverage the movie's minimal theatrical release into lucrative cable and home-video deals. (Arc could sell the 250,000 units for as little as $5 a pop and make back the film's estimated $1 million budget plus the cost of pressing and shipping the discs.) Plus, Arc hasn't had to spend any money on a traditional advertising campaign. It's been able to rely on free media -- newspaper reviews, blog posts pro and con, and feature articles about the movie, including the one you're reading now -- to generate all the publicity it's needed.
That may or may not represent good filmmaking or good politics, but it certainly is good marketing.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.