The greater part of the film Idiocracy is set in a dystopian American future. In 2505, instead of water, people drink a sports energy beverage called Brawndo: the thirst mutilator. They can get a hand job with their Starbucks (called a "full body latte") and the most popular programme on The Violence Channel is a series called: Ow, My Balls. Corporations own everything, even the federal associations that accredit them. Public services are drained for sponsorship or entertainment opportunities, so people have no chance of a fair trial, a humane prison system, decent healthcare or competent government. But everyone's so stupid they don't care.
Idiocracy was due out in 2005. In 2006, it was given a limited release in 125 cinemas in America (a wide release shows at a minimum of 600 cinemas). Fox chose not to create promotional items like cinema trailers, press kits or TV ads. The final film was burdened with an 'additional editing' credit (this usually speeds up the pace of the plot); lacklustre special effects; and a superfluous expository voiceover.
Why would the film's distributor, 20th Century Fox, try to sink a satire they were supposed to be promoting?
We can speculate. Perhaps they didn't have faith in Mike Judge, the film's creator (he wrote, directed and produced the movie). This seems strange: after all, he is also the creator of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill. Still, they were taking a risk on him, right? Judge's last movie for Fox, the 1999 Office Space, did poorly at the box office, although the marketing campaign that misleadingly played up similarities to Beavis and Butthead may have been, in part, to blame. The film certainly found its audience on VHS and DVD where it did make money, selling over six million copies, acquiring cult status and giving office-bound geeks everywhere a snarky vocabulary to query pointless rule-making (see "TPS reports" and "flair").
Perhaps Fox didn't think it was a good movie: Idiocracy is flawed. As everything is played for laughs, it's hard to care too much about the plot outcome. Characterisation is thin and jokes outstay their welcome - sometimes, the dumbass mentality the film critiques seems to spill out into the narrative itself. Particularly perplexing is why the only female character in the film is a prostitute; it's not for satirical effect. The profession serves only to inspire some feeble jokes.
Nonetheless, this is a studio that during the same period gave a full release to: Elektra; Rebound; Transporter 2; Cheaper by the Dozen 2; Grandma's Boy; Big Momma's House 2; Date Movie; and Just My Luck. Quality is clearly not essential to get Fox's support.
It is also strange to note that although Mike Judge and his star Luke Wilson have enormous popularity in Texas (Judge was born in New Mexico but lives in Austin), Fox did not even attempt to recoup costs by releasing the film widely in their home state.
So, is it possible that Fox buried Idiocracy because it didn't like what the film said? Maybe. 20th Century Fox is part of Fox Filmed Entertainment, which is in turn a subsidiary of the entertainment giant News Corp. Like other Murdoch-owned companies, Fox is expected to broadcast its owner's right-wing, pro-corporate message.
The Fox News Channel is specifically targeted within Idiocracy for its sensationalist news coverage. Fox News in the future is presented by naked bodybuilders, mocking the way in which Fox has abandoned the conventions of serious news broadcasters and added emotive commentary on stories; numerous opinion slots; and bright and fast-moving graphics in order to up the entertainment factor. More broadly, the film is critical of the way that companies today to consumers' ugliest desires and fears - which could function as a summary of the Fox business plan.
But could there be another reason for the silence surrounding Idiocracy? A failure of Fox's marketing strategy, perhaps? Fox is good at marketing by genre. It takes its products seriously and favours bombastic promotion by genre, to a well-targeted audience. It does less well in promoting unusual ideas, like Office Space or Arrested Development. This was a sharp and subversive comedy that ran for three series, winning six Emmys and one Golden Globe. But it was antithetical to the usual comfy Fox sitcoms and they were unable to promote the programme successfully, having problems with its slot and promotion, and never managing to capitalise on its wide critical acclaim. Viewing figures peaked with an unimpressive six million viewers.
But then again, Arrested Development satirised a family business that embraced capitalist excesses and whose overweening figurehead was involved in shady dealings worldwide. So maybe Fox decided that six million viewers was enough.
Mike Judge certainly believes that his film was sabotaged, even if only by stupidity. He has said: "I'm only going to make a movie again if I own it or have final cut."
- Emma Rowley on Idiocracy