Here’s a sobering thought as we turn toward the Golden Globes, wherein Adam McKay’s Vice is the most-nominated film: All of last year’s political movies combined have sold about as many tickets as one upper-middle horror hit.
In a year of partisan intensity, the top performer among movies with overt political themes was Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. A Globes nominee for best drama, that one had taken in about $48.3 million at the domestic box office as of midweek to rank a bit above No. 60 in the combined tally on Boxofficemojo.com.
Stacked somewhere underneath were Vice, Chappaquiddick, RBG, Fahrenheit 11/9, Death of a Nation, Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, The Front Runner and On the Basis of Sex. Add those to Lee’s film, and the total comes to roughly $117 million — a little less than Warner and its New Line unit took in with The Nun, so far No. 24 among the feature film releases of 2018. (Throw in the farcical Death of Stalin, and the political total comes to around $125 million, still short of No. 20 The Meg at $145.4 million.
Hollywood remains in the throes of its Trump-era political obsession. So it seems safe to predict that Sunday night’s Globes ceremony — hosted by Sandra Oh and Andy Samberg and heavy with politically aware nominees — will bring its share of finger-wagging and pointed barbs.
But the film audience has been buying almost anything else: superhero fantasy (Black Panther), ethnic comedy (Crazy Rich Asians), musical biography (Bohemian Rhapsody), show business melodrama (A Star Is Born).
On the cable news shows, political anger remains a draw. At the movies, not so much. Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, about the media takedown of 1988 presidential candidate Gary Hart, has been stuck at about $2 million in ticket sales. Michael Moore’s anti-Trump Fahrenheit 11/9 has had about $6.4 million in sales, compared with $119.2 million for his anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004.
To some extent, viewers are exhausted by the nonstop political strife since Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Through the fall, the midterm elections kicked it up a notch on television. But moviegoers escaped to fantasies like Venom and The Meg.
At another level, voters clearly are willing to elect a celebrity such as Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Donald Trump, provided screen careers are put on hold for a while. But they turn cold when box-office idols seem to be pushing them around.
In 1966, when Reagan first ran for governor of California, his opponent, Pat Brown, had assertive A-list backing from stars including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck, Danny Kaye, Milton Berle, Ella Fitzgerald, Danny Thomas, Sammy Davis Jr., Eddie Fisher and Janet Leigh. Reagan had John Wayne and some B-listers such as Andy Devine and Ray Bolger. But the former SAG president won with 58 percent of the vote.
More recently, celebrity support couldn’t save the campaigns of Democrats Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum or Stacey Abrams, even as the political pendulum was swinging against Republicans elsewhere.
The underlying lesson is a modest one. Everyone, of course, is entitled to an opinion. But filmmakers, stars and awards-show hosts who preach can’t assume that everyone else is listening.