This weekend Paramount launched Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, drawing more noise from the CIA, Republicans and Democrats than moviegoers with a middling 4-day opening of $19M.
But despite audiences embracing the Michael Bay film with an A CinemaScore, bureaucrats have had a heyday kicking 13 Hours around like a political football. And it’s never good when partisan factions get their hands around a movie. Such squabbling is one of the chief factors seen in 13 Hours coming in under its $20M-$23M four-day projection.
If American Sniper stoked moviegoers with its sense of patriotism in the story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, then 13 Hours based on Mitchell Zuckoff’s book was pure agenda for Republicans looking to paint Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton in a ugly light, particularly given her spotlight during the 2012 attacks. For a movie that focused on the challenges that the commandos faced on the ground as they squared off with Islamic militants, Clinton’s name wasn’t even uttered in the film. At last Thursday’s Republican debate, presidential candidate Ted Cruz praised the film, which resulted in his opponent Donald Trump mounting a free screening at an Iowa theater ahead of the state’s caucus. In addition, 13 Hours was screened on Friday to key GOP figures in Georgetown. It comes as no surprise that 13 Hours over-indexed in southern red states, while coming up short at upscale metropolitan theaters.
“Anything with Benghazi in the title immediately sets off bells and whistles,” said one major studio marketing vet.
Being embraced by partisan conservatives doesn’t make a movie palatable for a whole country who may not swing that way. To make matters worse, the C.I.A. and Democrats tried to throw 13 Hours under the bus. In a Washington Post article that ran Friday, a C.I.A. spokesperson as well as a chief operative at the Benghazi compound tried to smear Bay’s film by arguing that a “stand down” command was never issued, thus resulting in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith. The C.I.A. op admitted that he hadn’t watched the movie. Zuckoff fired off a lengthy defense to the press declaring, “The movie and book got it right”. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), whose district includes Hollywood and who sat on the Benghazi committee, also shot off his protest to Politico about the “stand down” order.
All of this screamed deja vu, reminiscent of when a Senate committee announced in January 2013 that it would investigate the C.I.A. contacts who assisted Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers. It was all part of the government’s ploy to save its face over the waterboarding interrogation tactics used during the Osama bin Laden hunt, which were intensely portrayed in the movie.
Zero Dark Thirty also had one advantage working in its favor that 13 Hours did not. The Kathryn Bigelow-directed movie was frontloaded by an awards campaign and a successful limited holiday rollout at the B.O. before opening wide to $24.4M and finaling at $96M coupled with five Oscar noms and one win. Such awards groundswell and platform distribution also worked in the favor of other U.S. military titles that went wide during January, read Black Hawk Down ($28.6M opening), Lone Survivor ($37.8M) and American Sniper ($107.2M). Mounting 13 Hours as an awards contender wasn’t part of Paramount’s plans. In addition, some of these war movies like American Sniper and Lone Survivor were sold around their respective well-established marquee stars Bradley Cooper and Mark Wahlberg, yielding stellar B.O. results. 13 Hours featured a cast of burgeoning actors with The Office actor John Krasinski shedding his comedy chops and transforming into a fierce muscular soldier.
Credit should be given to both Paramount and Bay for making 13 Hours. For a director who gets criticized for overloading his films with robotic blasts and booms, Bay raised his game on 13 Hours. The New York Post film critic Kyle Smith praised, “Bay’s goal is to put you right in these men’s boots, to feel the heat, the fear, the fatigue, the weight of the weapons and the web of camaraderie.” Paramount kept the director, who has given them the $3.8B Transformers franchise, in the fold and allowed him to make the movie he wanted.
“There was a swirl of politics around this story, and Michael was drawn to the book because it was about the guys on the ground. Their story hadn’t been properly told. It’s an incredibly heroic story that was overshadowed by politics, and we weren’t naive to that,” explained Paramount’s president of worldwide distribution and marketing Megan Colligan this morning.
In promoting 13 Hours, Paramount screened the film at military bases and to first responders. The three surviving soldiers from the Benghazi attack –Mark “Oz” Geist, John “Tig” Tiegen, and Kris “Tanto” Paronto — went on a 19-city press tour topped off with church speaking engagements, military base visits, and appearances at sporting events.
Like Zero Dark Thirty, 13 Hours drew an older male crowd at 55% men and 79% over 25. There was also a sizeable portion over 50 (39%). Audiences at 79% turned out because of their interest in the Benghazi attacks. 13 Hours’ ‘A’ CinemaScore gives it a 3.6 multiple, which puts the film at a projected domestic final B.O. of $68M+. Rentrak’s Post-Trak movie poll service reports that 60% of those who watched 13 Hours will recommend it to their friends, while 33% said that they would probably recommend it. Paramount hopes that solid word of mouth spreads to the heartland, as that region was too consumed with Leonardo DiCaprio’s 12-Oscar nominated western The Revenant this weekend which is posting a FSSM of $35M.
Added Colligan, “I think the military and first responders understand the big sacrifice made by the soldiers in Benghazi. There are plenty of people who understand and appreciate what’s at stake. I think the goal was to figure out with whom do you build a base of support without the politics of it all.”