A high-profile Hollywood movie about WikiLeaks has flopped at the US box office, while a rival film offered by the controversial website as a free download appears to have been a modest hit.
Following a disappointing release in the UK, The Fifth Estate, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, also suffered the worst US opening weekend of the year for a film being shown on more than 1,500 screens.
The biopic, released in the US by Disney’s Touchstone division, cost $26m (£16m) to produce, but last weekend took just $1.7m in 1,769 theatres: less than $1,000 per screen. By contrast, the Tom Hanks kidnap drama Captain Phillips – also in its opening weekend – made more than 10 times as much, with $17.3m. The space-based thriller Gravity remained at number one in the US box office charts, taking $31m in its third week. Dave Hollis, Disney’s Vice President for distribution, told The Hollywood Reporter the studio was “disappointed” by the numbers.
Directed by Bill Condon, The Fifth Estate depicts the beginnings of WikiLeaks and its rise to prominence. It is based on Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website, a 2011 memoir by the organisation’s former spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, which Assange has described as “toxic”.
Assange, who remains in diplomatic limbo at London’s Ecuadorean Embassy, denounced the film before its release, and refused a request from Cumberbatch to meet the actor in person. In a letter to the star, Assange wrote: “I believe you are a good person, but I do not believe that this film is a good film… Feature films are the most powerful and insidious shapers of public perception, because they fly under the radar of conscious exclusion. This film is going to bury good people doing good work, at exactly the time that the state is coming down on their heads. It is going to smother the truthful version of events, at a time when the truth is most in demand… By meeting with you, I would validate this wretched film, and endorse the talented, but debauched, performance that the script will force you to give.”
As part of his campaign to discredit the film, Assange held a Skype interview with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, telling them The Fifth Estate was bound to fail. As the movie opened, WikiLeaks released a rival documentary, Mediastan, which takes viewers behind the scenes of its massive leak of US government cables in 2011. Assange, who produced the film, said: “This weekend instead of wasting your time and money on Hollywood propaganda, why not get all your friends around and spend your time watching Mediastan instead?”
Some 500,000 people downloaded Mediastan for free last weekend, viewer figures that would represent approximately $4.2m in US box office takings.
Though The Fifth Estate attracted some cinemagoers in major US cities, it is thought that the country’s more conservative states showed little or no enthusiasm for the film. The flop echoes the release of Assange’s autobiography in September 2011. Assange collaborated with a ghost-writer after receiving a reported £500,000 advance, undergoing more than 50 hours of interviews. However, he later changed his mind and tried to halt publication.
Despite substantial hype, the “unauthorised” text sold a mere 644 copies in its first week. As with The Fifth Estate, it is unclear if Assange successfully sabotaged its release, or readers simply weren’t interested in the subject.