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Snowden and Assange at the Movies Aren't Even $2 Million Men

Edward Snowden on TV in Hong Kong on June 23

Photograph by Vincent Yu/AP Photo

Edward Snowden on TV in Hong Kong on June 23

Finally, we can put a price of a sort on leaking state secrets: $1.7 million. That was the breathtakingly dismal box-office tally this past weekend for The Fifth Estate, a biopic of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Fittingly, that’s also the amount a different group of filmmakers tried—and failed—to raise on Kickstarter to make a feature film on National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. Jason Bourque and Travis Doering, his aspiring chroniclers, have now moved their fundraising pitch to a new website in the hope they’ll make enough to start filming Classified: The Edward Snowden Story in early 2014.

Sure, one might ask, who wants to pull out the popcorn to watch some midlevel hero hit the send button to gush government secrets before dashing off? Perhaps the folks at DreamWorks and Disney (DIS), who may need it to balance the stiff drinks they downed after watching the WikiLeaks film flop. It’s as if DreamWorks, which has inspired audiences with heroes from Shrek to Lincoln, somehow misplaced the rule book for this one. Earnest activists have been more palatable when played by Hollywood stars like Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), Matt Damon (The Informant!), Sally Field (Norma Rae), or Russell Crowe (The Insider). If they’re not especially likable, they should be doing heroic things. It also helps to have more dramatic action than clicking on a keyboard (a challenge in movies like The Social Network, too).

That doesn’t mean a Snowden biopic can’t be a blockbuster if it ever gets made. At least the tale of NSA leaks holds the promise of a cameo by Vladimir Putin and the drama of having Donald Trump ban him from the Miss Universe Competition via Twitter. I know 18 backers on Kickstarter are eager to see what comes of this. The bigger challenge for the filmmakers is the reality that most of us aren’t that curious about Snowden’s life. After two months of saturation coverage, two more hours doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Even those who consider him a hero for uncovering government surveillance would probably admit they’ve had their fill on the back story and are more curious about what happens from here.

That’s not to say Americans lack the patience to watch serious subjects on screen. Getting them to watch a dramatic portrayal of overexposed hackers, though, requires digging deep into Hollywood’s tool kit to make it entertaining.

Brady is a senior editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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