ORANGE, Calif. (Reuters) - "The Undefeated," a flattering documentary about Sarah Palin's rise in American politics, opened in a handful of U.S. movie theaters Friday, drawing die-hard fans of the Tea Party favorite from far away.
Distributors put the film in just 10 AMC theaters nationwide, mostly in reliably conservative markets like Dallas, Texas and Orange County in southern California.
But if it does well this weekend, it will expand to new and not-so-conservative markets.
A successful roll-out would be a welcome vehicle to whip up enthusiasm for the former Alaska governor as she prepares to tell Americans in the next few months if she will seek the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential race.
Fundraising tallies for Palin suggest she needs the help. Her primary fundraising committee brought in a paltry $1.6 million in the first half of 2011, a fraction of the $18.25 million Republican front-runner Mitt Romney's presidential committee collected in the second quarter alone.
"Run, Sarah, run!" shouted Californian Sherman Roodzant, 64, as the final credits rolled on the 1:10 p.m. showing in a half-filled theater in Orange. Roodzant drove 150 miles to see it and said it was worth every mile.
"It was awesome," Roodzant said. "It showed her life story and showed what a great American she is and what a great potential leader she is. It made me feel stronger toward her."
That kind of fervor is exactly what distributors are banking on. They saw it at the premiere last month in a small town in conservative-leaning Iowa.
"I couldn't believe the crowd reaction" in Iowa, said Trevor Drinkwater, CEO of ARC Entertainment, which is handling the film's distribution. "It is a biased crowd, but still."
'GIVES HER GRAVITAS'
Documentaries, however, are notoriously difficult to market and there is particularly stiff competition this weekend.
The final "Harry Potter" installment is opening in a staggering 4,375 U.S. and Canadian theaters and should break box office records.
Filmmaker Stephen Bannon based the documentary on Palin's memoir "Going Rogue" and uses her readings from that book to narrate a good part of the film. It takes moviegoers from her political infancy as mayor of the Alaskan town of Wasilla to her governorship in Alaska, where she took on Big Oil.
Then one day, Palin gets a call from Republican presidential candidate John McCain asking her to be his running mate in 2008.
The film takes aim at the wave of criticism Palin faced once the "outsider" arrived on the national political stage. To illustrate the attacks, Bannon shows a pride of lions feasting on a zebra.
Toward the end of the film, which features Palin making speeches to the emerging Tea Party movement, the audience in Orange began to clap.
Business owner Robert Benson drove 90 minutes to see what he called "a terrific film" that "gives her some gravitas."
"I didn't realize how accomplished she was as governor of Alaska," said Benson, who said he would like to see Palin run for the presidency.
But Benson acknowledged it was "bizarre" to see a film like this in a commercial movie theater.
"I am amazed it is in 10 theaters," said Benson. "I am amazed that AMC did it. I think, to their credit, it is probably going to work out well for them."
Gay Meador, 62, said she was "shocked and ashamed" that the Orange AMC theater was the only place where "The Undefeated" was showing in her area, let alone California.
She will recommend it to friends, and not only ones who are Palin supporters.
"There is a midnight showing. ... You can sneak out in the middle of the night so the neighbors don't know where you went," said Meador. (Editing by Todd Eastham)
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