Citizenfour: Hot-Button Documentary about Snowden Stirs Controversy

“Citizenfour,” about the controversial Edward Snowden, had a srrong debut at the art-house box-office this weekend, as this year big-event documentary.

The account of the computer expert’s decision to blow the whistle on widespread surveillance by the National Security Agency premiered to $125,172 from just five theaters. That amounts to a per-screen average of $25,034, impressive for a documentary.

“It’s an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful and persuasive overview of what’s happening in government, in the halls of the NSA and within our own pursuit of liberty,” said Tom Quinn, co-president of the film’s distributor, Radious-TWC.

“It’s living, breathing history,” he added. “It would be as if Woodward and Bernstein had a camera when they were talking to Deep Throat.”

Empowered by its initial success, the film will quickly broaden its footprint beyond New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Next weekend it will show in at least 14 theaters and will begin screening in cities such as Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago. Over the next four weeks it will expand nationally.

“I’m going to be getting a lot of calls [from exhibitors] on Monday,” said Quinn. “We think this film is going to play beyond the top 25 media markets and it’s going to play to younger audiences as well.”

“Citizenfour” needs to capture the popular consciousness in a way that only few documentaries have. “Fahrenheit 9/11″ capitalized on liberal disenchantment with the Bush administration to make $119 million domestically, while “2016: Obama’s America” benefited from conservative outrage over Barack Obama’s presidency to the tune of $33.4 million.

“Documentaries are definitely a tough sell,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “For a documentary to do $1 million is like a big budget film doing $100 million. It’s exceedingly rare.”

Radius-TWC had a hit last year with “20 Feet From Stardom,” which grossed almost $5 million, but even politically charged docus such as “The Act of Killing” were unable to crack the $1 million mark.

The film has drawn critical raves, with reviewers lauding director Laura Poitras for crafting a fact-based document that plays like one of the great paranoid thrillers from the 1970s such as “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men.”

The film follows Snowden as he divulges reams of information to Poitras and fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald about massive data monitoring being undertaken by the U.S. government.

The Weinstein Company, which owns Radius-TWC, said the film had changed his opinion about Snowden. The indie entrepreneur had previously called the whistleblower a traitor.

Radius-TWC has opted to do a traditional theatrical release for “Citizenfour.” Participant Media, which has turned hot-button documentaries like “Food Inc” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” financed the film.  The partners think the docu will generate Oscar buzz and prompt people to re-evaluate Snowden, much as it caused Weinstein to shift his position. “We think that it’s an empowering film that’s going to lead to a lot of conversations,” said Quinn.

Like “Waiting for Superman,” a docu that was a box office hit because it launched a broader debate on school reform, “Citizenfour” should become an op-ed page staple. “Waiting for Superman” was one of the last documentaries that averaged more than $25,000 per-screen, a good harbinger for “Citizenfour.” “This is a much bigger topic and everyone has an opinion on it,” said Quinn. “I think it’s going to be controversial, it’s going to get heated, and I can’t wait.”