Can Bill Maher achieve Michael Moore-style success with Religulous?

Bill Maher, Movie Star?

on September 30, 2008 by billmaherfeature.jpg

By Phil Contrino

Now that he has achieved a high level of success with his HBO television show and his best-selling books, Bill Maher will try to succeed on the bigscreen with Religulous.

The film expands to 500 theatres this weekend and if the box office numbers are good enough then it could reach larger audiences. After all, documentaries are no longer relegated to art houses. They have crossed over into mainstream territory and that is probably the way things will stay.

The highest grossing documentary of all time is still Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which was able to rake in a staggering $119 million when it was released before the 2004 election. Even Moore's last effort, 2007's Sicko, was a huge success by documentary standards. The health care-themed doc went on to gross a healthy $24.5 million.

Yet not all documentary directors are able to achieve, and maintain, Moore's level of success. After the success of 2004's Super Size Me, which took in an impressive $11.5 million domestically, director Morgan Spurlock completed another documentary titled Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? this year. The film received none of the rave reviews—which are often very crucial to the success of any doc—that Super Size Me did. In the end, Where in the World... failed to bring in even $500,000 at the box office and it landed on DVD with considerably less hype than Super Size Me did.

Recently, Al Gore and Ben Stein both found success in the documentary format. Gore's An Inconvenient Truth grossed $24.1 million and Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed brought in $7.7. Still, there is no evidence that either Gore or Stein are planning to pursue the documentary genre on any kind of consistent basis.

As for Maher, he brings with him an established audience as well as an established director. Larry Charles sat at the helm of Religulous, and he recently found immense success as the director of 2006's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The R-rated mocumentary grossed a whopping $128.5 million during its domestic theatrical run.

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