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Waiting For Superman: A Postmortem

Earlier this fall, there was lots of excitement about Waiting For Superman. It was the talk of the town for a bit, prompted NBC to discover education for a week, and made a school reform icon out of director Davis Guggenheim. In the aftermath, though, Guggenheim has taken shots for some questionable factual assertions and a scene in which he apparently inserted a manufactured shot for emotional impact (very Broadcast News).

The movie is now finishing its theatrical run, dribbling out of the last few theaters. How big a splash did it make? As of December 13, the flick had done $6.4 million in the box office. That translates to something like 800,000 tickets, and makes it the 143rd ranked movie in the past 365 days. It finished third in domestic receipts among 2010 documentaries, trailing Babies and Oceans. All-time--in what had to be dispiriting for Guggenheim, director of the very successful An Inconvenient Truth--Waiting For Superman ranks 19th in domestic box office sales among documentaries (and, unlike with Babies or Oceans, the international appeal of WFS is almost nonexistent). Its $6.4 million haul lagged the domestic performance of top-performing documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 ($119.2 million), Tupac: Resurrection (#16 at $7.7 million), and Babies (#17 at $7.3 million).

The weak numbers are especially surprising given the substantial push WFS got from major media, the school reform community, and ardent efforts to encourage potential viewers to sign a pledge that they'd see the movie. In fact, the Gates Foundation gave Participant Media $2 million for "a social action campaign" intended to complement Paramount Pictures' marketing campaign, a sum that amounted to nearly a third of the film's total box office.

Guggenheim tried real hard this fall to argue that anyone who regards WFS as an assault on teacher unions is missing the point. I'm all in favor of beating up on the unions when they deserve it (which, to my mind, is often); what rankles me is the apologia that crept into Guggenheim's tone. On the conservative Hugh Hewitt show he explained, "You know, I come, I'm a Democrat. I'm a lefty. You know, I'm a member of a great union, the Directors Guild of America. So I actually believe that unions have a good and important place in society, and they should be there to protect their teachers." Strikes me that, if he thought that would placate teachers, he must not have learned much about the edu-space while making his movie or else didn't recognize how the film came across.

Finally, my favorite part of the whole WFS phenomenon was the simple-minded insistence that "we know what works," and that it's "great teachers." Guggenheim told us, "It's not some magic; it's about having a commitment to making great teachers in this country." And again: "The solution is great teachers. The high-performing charters have great teachers." And again: "As complicated as we have made [the debate], it boils down to what parents already know: It's all about great teachers, it's all about who's standing in front of the kids every morning."

Glad we got THAT settled. Time to go fix higher ed! Next film: "Waiting For My Disinterested Professor at My Overpriced College to Teach Me Something."

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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