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Sarah Palin Documentaries, Whether Pro or Con, Face a Tough Future

Next week, British provocateur documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer) will be screening his new doc on Sarah Palin for potential distributors, and his film promises to provide a very negative vision of the possible presidential aspirant/bus aficionado. Stocked with interviews with disgruntled former aides, Alaskan politicos, and other acquaintances from her orbit, Broomfield's doc will stand as a counterpoint to the documentary The Undefeated, a hagiography of her days as governor of Alaska that premiered in Iowa last night, with Palin as the guest of honor. In the media, Palin is under constant (self-encouraged) scrutiny, as a magnet for both adulation and vilification. But when these docs come out, will anyone who either loves or hates her pay for the privilege of having their preconceptions reconfirmed?

To be fair, docs are always a notoriously tricky niche in which to seek success, regardless of subject, and only a dozen have ever even grossed more than $13 million. (Four in this group came from lefty firebrand Michael Moore. The rest mostly star animals like penguins, lions, and Madonna.) And when it opens on July 15, The Undefeated will face another handicap: The audiences for documentaries are generally liberal, says Rocky Mountain Pictures principal Ron Rodgers, who released the 2008 pro-intelligent design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (with star Ben Stein). "It's hard to keep the attention of the faith-based audience," says Rodgers. "Even with a faith-based message, they don’t like documentaries. [Expelled] performed poorly throughout the whole southeast - the whole Bible Belt was quite soft with it.”

Interestingly enough, Expelled did go on to gross $7.7 million, but it was thanks to Democratic ticket-buyers who were driven by curiosity, either intellectual or perverse. (There are those on the left who enjoy the act of getting apoplectic listening to opposing viewpoints: by screaming at Rush Limbaugh on their car radios, for example.) When Rocky Mountain gave its film a wide release, it had great - and unexpected - success in such liberal hubs as San Francisco's Embarcadero theater.

The usual approach for a small niche doc like this is to have a platform release, starting in a few sure-bet red-state cities, and expanding as the movie proves successful. Had Expelled done this, Rocky Mountain never would have realized that it had any blue-state potential. Says Rodgers, "We would have picked the wrong [cities]…The Al Gore documentary [An Inconvenient Truth] started out platformed, but with Expelled, it would have disappeared before it reached 1,200 theaters.”

Expelled is the only conservative-leaning documentary to crack the top 50 highest-grossers in non-fiction films. (It is safe to say it's the only high-grossing conservative-leaning doc.) However, The Undefeated is choosing not to follow Expelled's successful release strategy and instead will preach to the choir. In an exclusive exhibition arrangement with AMC Theaters, the film is being shown only in pro-Palin locales Dallas, Denver, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Atlanta, Phoenix, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Republican-heavy Orange County, California. However, Trevor Drinkwater, CEO of The Undefeated's distributor ARC Entertainment, says they're betting that unlike Expelled, there isn't much of a liberal market for his film. “We’ve been pretty analytical about where her biggest supporters are,” said Drinkwater, “and in these [heavily Republican] markets, she’s kind of a rock star. It might be true that in some of the blue states people might want to come just to throw tomatoes at her, but — even though she has no financial stake in this thing — they might be reluctant to even spend money near her."

Those behind Broomfield's untitled film are just as confident that their doc won't cross party lines in the other direction. First, there's the previously cited opinion that docs don't play as well in red states; but more specifically, Broomfield's spokesman Bright says that the film will turn off right wingers “because it’s the truth.” Zing!

Ultimately, how it does depends on what kind of story Broomfield tells. “The films themselves have to work as movies,” insists John Lesher, the former head of Paramount Vantage, which distributed An Inconvenient Truth. “Al Gore’s story is as much a story of his personal redemption as it a story about the issue of the climate crisis.” Ninety minutes of people pointing out various ways that Sarah Palin is evil may be cathartic for haters, but not necessarily anything they want to pay for. With Expelled, there was a curiosity factor, because while intelligent design is a term that's thrown around quite a bit, it's not explored in great detail on the news every day. But Palin is stubbornly omnipresent, and those who despise her know exactly why they do. (And getting mad at Fox News is free.) As one distribution chief says, “I root for their success — I want every movie to do well - but I think any [Palin] documentary’s prospects are cold — not cool, cold.”

But the moment Broomfield's doc pops up on cable — it's gonna be a high-blood pressure viewing party for the NPR crowd! Antacid for everyone!

Photo: Matt Stroshane/Getty Images