Fahrenheit 2012: Political Films' Profit Potential
It’s 2016, and the skies over America’s heartland have turned tornado dark, seemingly for good. The economy has suffered a total collapse and Americans are hungry and fearful. Anarchy reigns in some urban areas. Ever since President 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, in fact, 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. Produced on a modest $2.5 million budget, it’s 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 in early November.
2016: Obama’s America 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 that include Runaway Slave, which features onetime GOP 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); Hating Breitbart, which chronicles the life of the late conservative pundit and Drudge-like Internet impresario Andrew Breitbart (according to the film’s official site, “how one man with a website upended the traditional press”); and 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 October 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. Bossie argues that this year’s election season is especially rife with polemics thanks to Michael Moore, whose anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11 earned more than $119 million domestically in the summer of 2004. (It remains America’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 2016: Obama’s America (“A nonsensically unsubstantiated act of character assassination,” observed Entertainment Weekly), and more conservative outlets offered praise (“The author’s film deserves to be part of the electoral discussion,” argued the site Big Hollywood), the Obama campaign’s official website publicly panned the movie as “an insidious attempt to dishonestly smear the president.” The directors couldn’t have asked for more. “That obviously means … he doesn’t want you to see it,” says Bob Angelotti, a film marketing consultant. “That’s a marketing dream.”
2016 was rolled out by Rocky Mountain Pictures, a small Salt Lake City-based distributor of independent films that is 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. “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.”
Much of 2016: Obama’s America’s success 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 2016: Obama’s America, Slaughter chose Republican-friendly Houston before moving to Dallas, Nashville, and Anchorage. 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. “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-per-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 notes 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 America, 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.”