F/N Gathering Its Rosebuds While, And Where, It May

As RN often equably observed, his books could always count on at least a couple of hundred thousand sales because the cons —who were eagerly anticipating delicious new Nixonian excesses and outrages— were as likely to buy them as were the pros —who were patiently awaiting the latest expressions of Nixonian wisdom.

Indeed, Rose Mary Woods kept a “book list” —ultimately amounting to a couple of hundred thousand names— of those who wrote regarding RN’s oeuvre. Almost evenly divided between the pro and the con, the list would be maintained and used as the basis for the next book’s sales plan.

This is the context in which a press release from Universal Pictures announcing that Frost/Nixon enjoyed the biggest per-screen debut of any film released in 2008 should probably be read.

“Frost/Nixon”, Universal Pictures’ new electrifying drama, directed by Academy Award(R) winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man) and starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, had a remarkable first weekend at the domestic box office, it was announced today. Over the weekend, the film accumulated $180,708 from just three locations in New York City, Los Angeles and Toronto, for a per- screen average of $60,236. This figure gives “Frost/Nixon” the biggest per- screen debut of any film released in 2008.

“This is a spectacular opening, and we are thrilled with the result,” said Adam Fogelson, President of Marketing and Distribution for Universal Pictures. “Ron Howard, his cast and crew created one of the best films of the year, and it is gratifying that audiences and critics alike are celebrating it with such enthusiasm. We look forward to bringing ‘Frost/Nixon’ to additional markets through Christmas so audiences everywhere can discover for themselves what has people crowding into these early theaters.”

Currently playing in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto, F/N will expand to 29 additional markets (including Washington DC) on Friday. It will open wide on Christmas Day — timing which some snarks will probably see as Universal’s coal in the stockings of America.

The major critics have now weighed in, and the film has received a pretty decisive endorsement: 92% positive among all critics (per Rotten Tomatoes) and 95% among the top tier. And the combination of strong reviews and potentially strong word of mouth could extend the film’s charmed life in Friday’s targeted cities,

But the answer to the question of whether F/N will “Sizzle or Fizzle” can, surely, never really be in doubt.

Given the reviews and degree of interest to date —not to mention the remnants of Rose Woods’ list — it’s hard to see a complete fizzle in F/N’s future. But —unless lightning were to strike in the form, say, of a Best Actor or Best Director Oscar— it’s hard to imagine the film finding a wider audience after the sizable but finite universe of interested individuals —the people who still love and the people who still love to hate RN, plus the hardcore universe of younger political junkies— have seen it.

Depending on how much it cost to make —and there’s nothing to indicate that this was a budget-busting project— the film seems bound to deliver a respectable, and even a strong, return on investment.

But, sizzle is a slipprier standard. In Clintonian terms, it depends on what you mean by it. Such sizzle as there may be in F/N’s future is almost precisely there — in the future. Screenwriter Peter Morgan’s earlier success —The Queen— did respectable business, but no more, before Helen Mirren won her Oscar. This holiday season, along with visions of sugar plums, visions of Frank Langella’s Oscar acceptance speech are undoubtedly unfolding before the wondering eyes of Messrs. Morgan, Howard, Grazer, and Fogelson, et al. (and, of course, Mr. Langella).

That’s the only route to true sizzle for F/N. But there’s a precedent. And stranger things have happened.

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