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Burning down the house

How the Michael Moore show came to Missoula



About two weeks ago, a small, computer-printed sign appeared taped to the door of Missoula’s Wilma Theatre. It read:

Attention Patrons
The Wilma Theatre proudly
Presents Michael Moore’s
New film
Fahrenheit 9/11
We are the only theatre
In the state of Montana
Selected to open the film
On June 25, 2004

What follows is a recounting of the extraordinary events surrounding the release of Moore’s controversial anti-Bush documentary, culminating in the opening of the film around the country and here in Missoula last Friday:

5/5/04—Disney chief Michael Eisner refuses to distribute Michael Moore’s new film Fahrenheit 9/11, produced by Disney subsidiary Miramax. Moore’s publicist claims that Eisner expressed concern that releasing the film would endanger tax breaks Disney receives in Jeb Bush’s Florida. While Disney will not distribute the film, Miramax is free to buy the distribution rights back from Disney and sell them to another company.

5/17/04—Fahrenheit 9/11 is screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and the audience responds with a 20-minute standing ovation—the longest ever seen at the festival.

5/22/04—Fahrenheit 9/11 wins the Cannes festival’s highest honor, the Palme d’Or. It is one of only three documentary films permitted to compete in almost 50 years.

6/1/04—Miramax announces Fahrenheit 9/11 will be released as a joint venture between Lions Gate Films, IFC Films and The Fellowship Adventure Group—the latter created by Miramax solely to handle the release of the controversial film. The newly minted consortium has just 24 days to get Fahrenheit 9/11 into theaters—an industry record. In that time the group must book screens, cut trailers and plan ad buys.

6/04—, the same group that pressured CBS to cancel The Reagans last year, begins a campaign to convince theater owners not to book the as-yet-unreleased Fahrenheit 9/11.

6/20/04—Michael Moore says in an interview that he hopes Fahrenheit 9/11 is the first big-audience, election-year film that will help unseat a president. “We found that if you entered the theater on the fence,” he tells the interviewer, “you fell off it somewhere during those two hours. It ignites a fire in people who had given up.” Additionally, Moore says that he is readying for assaults on the film’s credibility by hiring outside fact-checkers to verify facts disputed in conservative counterattacks. He will consider filing defamation suits against anyone who maligns the film or his reputation.

6/20/04—President Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush is quoted in The New York Daily News calling Moore a “slime ball” and describing Fahrenheit 9/11 as “a vicious personal attack on our son.”

6/21/04—, the liberal political organization, sends out an e-mail inviting millions of members to host or attend Fahrenheit 9/11 house parties to support and discuss the film on Monday, June 28. The website lists locations for two parties here in Missoula.

6/22/04—Ray Bradbury is upset that Moore has appropriated and modified the title of Bradbury’s 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury will not accept Moore’s phone apology.

6/22/04—The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) upholds its earlier decision to give the film an “R” rating. Children under the age of 17 cannot see the film without an adult. The MPAA justifies the somewhat rare R rating by citing the film’s “violent and disturbing images” and language.

6/23/04—Fahrenheit 9/11 opens in New York and Los Angeles.

6/24/04—A conservative group, Washington D.C.’s Citizens United, complains to the Federal Election Commission that Fahrenheit 9/11’s television commercials will violate federal campaign restrictions against corporate money broadcasting advertisements identifying a presidential candidate within 30 days of the party’s convention and 60 days of the election. The group argues that because the film’s commercials show Bush, they should be banned from the airwaves after July 31.

6/25/04—Fahrenheit 9/11 opens on 868 screens, with the film playing in at least one theater in each of the 50 states.

Fahrenheit 9/11’s distributors, Lions Gate and IFC, bucked showbiz convention by booking the film in a large number of theaters—868—in just three weeks. Normally, such a wide booking would take about three months to put into place; however, Moore wanted the film released for the July 4 weekend, which will then allow the DVD to be released in October, just before the election.

Tom Tapp, executive editor of V Life, Daily Variety’s bi-monthly glossy, told the Independent that “Lions Gate and IFC performed an extraordinary feat despite the fact that they wanted 1,000 theaters and ended up booking the film into 868. They had to book this so quickly,” Tapp continues, “that they probably aimed for the theaters that historically delivered optimal returns for this kind of film.”

Bill Emerson, manager of the Wilma, concurs. Asked how the booking came about, Emerson explained, “I told our booker to try to get the film months ago, when the stories first broke. When they told us we had the film during opening week, I was thrilled. It probably didn’t hurt that [Moore’s last film] Bowling for Columbine played at the Wilma for five months.”

As to why only one theater in the state, Tapp says, “If I were to guess, I’d say that if Moore is aiming to have an impact on the election, the booking strategy concentrated on targeting large voter blocs like California and Michigan and swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida—you’d have to look at Montana’s population and voter demographic for the answer.”

Tom Tapp believes the film will be around for a while. “If they’d been able to book 1,500–2,000 theaters, the film might not have the staying power it will because there is still going to be pent-up demand after opening weekend. With a movie that has this kind of natural buzz, it’s going to have much longer legs than a film that is built around a studio marketing campaign.”

“I hope the film plays in Missoula as long as Bowling for Columbine did,” says Emerson. “That would take us right up to the election.”

On Friday evening, the headlines and hard work played out in Missoula as the line at the Wilma started forming well before 6:00—early for a 7 p.m. screening time here. Shortly after, the queue snaked around the corner and out of sight. The 7:00 curtain was held as patrons continued filing into the theater at 7:30. There was an anticipatory buzz in the crowd, and when a rhythmic, insistent clapping began, a theater employee announced that manager Bill Emerson wanted to thank the audience for its patience while he made sure that everyone who wanted to got into the show.

At 7:35 the lights went down in the nearly full theater and the curtain rose. Fahrenheit 9/11 finally began its first screening in the only theater showing the film in the entire state of Montana.

As the end credits for the powerful film rolled nearly two hours later, the Missoula audience seemed, at first, stunned into silence, and then burst into sustained applause and cheers.

6/27/04—Fahrenheit 9/11 shatters all prior box office records for documentaries. The opening weekend take is $21.8 million. In a sign that there’s still some hope for this country, Fahrenheit 9/11 is the number one grossing film this weekend, handily beating the pants off of White Chicks.

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