Since yesterday was Presidents Day, one of the more forgettable holidays of the year, because it’s constantly overshadowed by the much more aggressively marketed Valentines Day, I’d like to dive into the success (or lack thereof) of politically based feature films at the domestic box office. So let’s roll out the red carpet, raise the campaign banners and get into analyzing how politically charged feature films perform.

First and foremost, below is a list of the ten highest grossing politically based feature films released domestically:

1. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

2. Dave (1993)

3. The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

4. The American President (1995)

5. The Distinguished Gentleman (1992)

6. Wag The Dog (1997)

7. Primary Colors (1998)

8. Head of State (2003)

9. Man of the Year (2006)

10. Black Sheep (1996)

Now we’re going to examine each release and determine how well each picture preformed. We will also cite any trends that emerge from studying these releases as a whole.

1. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
This remake of the 1962 classic tops the political box office list, with domestic earnings of $65,948,711 and international earnings of $30,200,000, totaling $96,148,200 worldwide. Unfortunately, the picture had a production budget of $80,000,000, and spent an additional $47,100,000 on prints and advertising, (a $127,000,000 total investment), so it’s safe to assume that this film tanked mightily as an investment. This is especially true when you consider this picture needed to achieve at least two and a half to three times its $80,000,000 production budget to beak even; which would be $200,000,000 to $240,000,000. Obviously, a $96,148,200 worldwide total is less than half of the minimum amount needed to make this film a financially sound investment.

An interesting thing to note is the #1 film on our list today is a financial failure. That should tell you all you need to know about the viability of political films at the box office.

The Manchurian Candidate was released on July 30, 2004, during the heart of the blockbuster-dominated summer release schedule. The timing of this release may have factored in its box office failure. Most summer releases are tent pole action pictures and broad comedies, because most moviegoers in the summer skew younger. I don’t see a lot of teenagers’ dying to go see a political drama on a hot summer day.

2. Dave (1993)
Released on May 7, 1993, this comedy feature film earned an impressive $62,270,910 at the domestic box office, which would adjust to move than $97,000,000 in 2012 dollars. Although the budget and or international figures for this film are not readily available, its budget was a fraction of its box office performance, because it was deemed a “sleeper hit” in the summer it was released.

3. The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Released on March 4, 2011, this $50,200,000 budgeted film earned $62,495,645 domestically and an additional $65,629,149 internationally, totaling $128,124,794. Furthermore, its DVD release was on June 21, 2011, earning the picture an additional $10,012,487. Thus, this film was deemed a financial success, albeit moderately so.

Since this film was released in early March, a time of year void of much box office competition, it benefited financially from the lack of competitors at the box office.

4. The American President (1995)
Released on November 17, 1995, in the heart of the holiday season release schedule, this $62,000,000 budgeted film earned $60,022,813 domestically and an additional $47,800,000 at the international box office, giving the picture a total international box office gross of $107,822,813. While this film lost money initially, it has frequently aired on cable television for the past several years, and it’s had 16 ½ years to recoup its investment on VHS, DVD, V.O.D., and all other ancillary sources of income. Thus, if it hasn’t achieved break-even yet, it will do so sometime soon.

5. The Distinguished Gentleman (1992)
This Eddie Murphy comedy was released on December 4, 1992, with hopes of a $200,000,000 plus box office success like Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop series of films. However, this picture only earned $46,434,570 at the box office, far less than its combined production and prints and advertising budget. This film is the second comedy on our list, and the second film on this list to be released during the holiday season.

6. Wag The Dog (1997)
This $15,000,000 budgeted comedy released on December 25, 1997, earned $43,057,470 domestically and $21,194,568 internationally, giving it a total box office gross of $64,252,038. The film was considered to be a surprise hit, as its positive word of mouth carried it through the holiday season. It’s the third comedy and third holiday release on our list.

7. Primary Colors (1998)
Released on March 20, 1998, this not-so-loosely based, somewhat comedic account of President Clinton’s life had a production budget of $65,000,000. Unfortunately, the film only earned $39,017,984 at the domestic box office. Obviously, releasing a negative image of a wildly popular president during his time in office negatively affected the film’s box office performance.

8. Head Of State (2003)
Released March 28, 2003, this $35,000,000 budget earned only $38,620,484 at the domestic box office. Based on a story of an African American man winning the American Presidency, I often wonder how well this picture would have done if it were released on March 28, 2008, a few months after President Obama took office, instead of five years before his historic term started. This picture is the fifth comedy on our list.

9. Man Of The Year (2006)
Released October 13, 2006, this, the sixth comedy on our list, had a $20,000,000 budget. The film earned $37,442,180 at the box office and another $3,900,000 internationally, totaling $41,342,180. However, the film’s February 20, 2007 DVD release spawned an impressive $18,816,090 more in earnings.

10. Black Sheep (1996)
Released February 2, 1996, this Chris Farley comedy, earned $32,330,354 at the box office, deeming it a low to moderate success. As its six predecessors, this film is the seventh comedy on this list.

The most obvious trend learned from this list is that political films do not perform well at the domestic or international box office. Their production budgets often outweigh their box office performance, and moviegoers have proven time and time again that they are not interested in spending their entertainment dollars on politically based feature films.

Of course, the other glaringly notable trend is that political comedies perform far better than political dramas.

Okay, people. I hope all of you had a relaxing extended Presidents Day Weekend. I thank you once again for lending me your eyes, and I look forward to borrowing them again next Tuesday.

I can be followed on Twitter @Lonelyseal.

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  1. The Mouth says:

    Sorry this list is just dreadful. Either its poorly researched or the author has a political adjenda against political films.

    For starters, your assessment of what is a political film is undefined, as there are a huge amount of films where politics are involved. The Manchurian Candidate is more of an assassination thriller than a film about the political process/scene.

    So if the Manchurian Candidate can be on this list then why not In The Line of Fire ($176M gross)? JFK?

    Why is State of Play not on this list ($92M)? Are newspaper movies like it and All The Presidents Men not political enough for you?

    What about Fahrenheit 9/11? Or do documentaries not count?

  2. shamim Zaidi says:

    Very nice.

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