Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) -- It’s 2016, and the skies over America’s heartland have turned tornado dark, seemingly for good. The economy has suffered a collapse and Americans are hungry and fearful. Anarchy reigns in some urban areas.
Ever since President Barack Obama, deep into his second term, withdrew U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, the whole of the Middle East has fallen under the control of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. The entire region has been forged together to form a “United States of Islam,” where jihadists train en masse and leaders have cut the flow of oil to the West.
Because the U.S. has dismantled its atomic arsenal, the country idly stood by as Iranian operatives detonated a nuclear bomb in Israel, triggering World War III.
Such is the future in “2016: Obama’s America,” which hit theaters in July, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Oct. 8 issue. Produced on a $2.5 million budget, it has amassed at least $32 million at the box office, according to Rocky Mountain Pictures, the film’s distributor.
Although it may sound like the Hollywood adaptation of a dystopian, sci-fi graphic novel, “2016: Obama’s America” ranks as the second-highest-grossing political documentary of all time in the U.S. That’s thanks to a vast, conservative-minded bloc of moviegoers, whom producers, filmmakers, and studios are racing to reach before they stream into voting booths on Nov. 6.
The film is based on the book of the same name by bestselling author and pundit Dinesh D’Souza, who also stars in the film, traveling from Hawaii to Indonesia to Kenya as he researches the president’s formative years in a quest to shed light on Obama’s supposedly anticapitalist beliefs.
After such an extensive itinerary, and a series of interviews, D’Souza concludes his film with the image of an Indian boy reading a history tome, whose pages reveal the fall of the American Empire in 2016.
The film’s unexpected popularity has raised expectations for a flood of reactionary, election-season movies, which include “Runaway Slave,” which features onetime Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain and a host of black conservatives inveighing against the tenets of liberalism.
“The size, the scope, and the reach of government is the new plantation!” preaches Cain. Another film, “Hating Breitbart,” chronicles the life of the late conservative pundit and Matt Drudge-like Internet impresario Andrew Breitbart. According to the film’s official site, it demonstrates one man with a website upended the traditional press.”
There’s also “Last Ounce of Courage,” about a small-town Christian mayor, Marshall Teague, who refuses to acknowledge the separation of church and state -- “We fight for freedom!” Teague shouts to crowds -- which earned $2.7 million over two weeks.
Due on Oct. 12 is a sequel after the heart of a younger Paul Ryan: “Atlas Shrugged Part II,” the second installment of a trilogy adapted from the Ayn Rand novel.
“When you look at box office returns,” says Andrew Marcus, director of “Hating Breitbart,” “especially for films that have political content, I think there is a huge audience that feels underserved. 2016 really shows that. The market is so tuned-in right now.”
David Bossie, president and chairman of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, produced 2008’s “Hillary: The Movie,” a film that led to the landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which cleared the way for corporations to spend unlimited amounts supporting candidates.
Echoes of Moore
Bossie argues that this year’s election season is especially rife with polemics thanks to Michael Moore, whose anti-George W. Bush “Fahrenheit 9/11” earned more than $119 million domestically in the summer of 2004 and remains the U.S.’s highest-grossing political documentary.
“Moore’s success from crossing the political Rubicon to pop culture gave me the idea for our Supreme Court case,” Bossie says. “I’m a political guy. I saw his 90-minute film, and I said, ‘Oh my goodness. There’s no response. There’s nothing in the marketplace of ideas to counter that. And we must have a response.’”
John Sullivan, co-director of “2016: Obama’s America,” agrees. “To be honest, we kind of followed Michael Moore’s template,” he says. “If you’re going to do something of this nature, you’re going to look for where there’s the most interest, and you’re going to release something like that.”
While traditional media outlets have largely dismissed the film -- “A nonsensically unsubstantiated act of character assassination,” said Entertainment Weekly -- more conservative outlets offered praise . “The author’s film deserves to be part of the electoral discussion,” said Big Hollywood.
The Obama campaign’s official website panned the movie as “an insidious attempt to dishonestly smear the president.” The directors couldn’t have asked for more.
That means “he doesn’t want you to see it,” says Bob Angelotti, a film-marketing consultant. “That’s a marketing dream.”
Rolling out the film was Rocky Mountain Pictures, a small Salt Lake City-based distributor of independent films that’s enjoying its biggest year ever. By Nov. 5, the company, which accepted a flat fee and a percentage of the gross, will have released seven documentaries, including “Hating Breitbart” and “Last Ounce of Courage.”
Once in Lifetime
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for someone like me,” says Randy Slaughter, Rocky Mountain’s co-founder. “Even competitors have called me to congratulate me.”
Slaughter, the son of a Texas-based theater-chain owner who began his career as the distributor of low-budget genre fare such as horror, surfer, and blaxploitation flicks in the 1970s, wants the movie to reach audiences across the aisle.
“I’m hoping, just from a business standpoint, that we’ll see maybe the Democrats or middle-of-the-roaders who are, let’s say, curious,” he said.
Much of the success of “2016: Obama’s America” is by Slaughter’s design. Typically, major distributors place big bets on Hollywood releases requiring massive upfront marketing pushes. “Unfortunately, most producers are in a big hurry,” says Slaughter of many of his clients. “Either they’ve got to get their money back or they’ve got to show their investors that they’re going to get a quick return.”
With political projects, he relies on a strategy that involves small releases in specifically chosen markets where they can build momentum.
For this film, Slaughter chose Republican-friendly Houston before moving to Dallas, Nashville, Tennessee, and Anchorage, Alaska. Then, he says, if all goes well, right-wing talk radio and Fox News lend support. “This movie is going gangbusters!” roared Rush Limbaugh as the film began its second month in theaters.
“These guys understood what I was saying,” says Slaughter, referring to the film’s producers. “Although I’m sure they were very anxious to get in more theaters, I had to kind of hold them back. You have to do that with producers. This is their baby.”
At least one Obama supporter is getting in on the right-wing film game. Billionaire sports and media mogul Mark Cuban -- -who earlier this year attended a $30,000-a-plate fundraiser for the president -- partnered with Citizens United to distribute “Occupy Unmasked,” a film critical of Occupy Wall Street.
“There has always been a market for partisan films,” says Cuban, who adds that they aren’t necessarily geared toward viewers who seek to have their votes influenced, but rather those who wish to have their beliefs reinforced. “Like-minded people tend to have a herd mentality when they are trying to prove a point. We like to tap into that opportunity.”
“Occupy Unmasked” earned $41,000 on four screens in its opening week. Its per-screen average of $10,200 amounted to the third-highest of any movie in the U.S., according to the industry-tracking site Box Office Mojo.
“I don’t take sides” politically, says Cuban. “If there is a legitimate market for the films, we will release or broadcast them. We are capitalists and believers in free speech.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keenan Mayo at firstname.lastname@example.org