In some parts of the United States, seeing the new right-wing documentary 2016: Obama’s America is a real event. It feels like movie-going from a bygone era. People cheer and yell at the screen. Afterward, strangers talk to each other in excited tones. I half expected to see someone at the screening dressed like George Washington or Ronald Reagan, based on reviews from other cities, which suggest this movie is a Tea Party version of TheRocky Horror Picture Show. (Sadly, in the liberal neighbourhood of New York’s Union Square, the audience was more subdued.)
The film, in which former Reagan policy analyst Dinesh D’Souza makes a case that Barack Obama is an anti-colonialist trying to undo American progress, has become an unexpected hit. Two weeks ago, it expanded from a handful of U.S. screens to more than 1,000, and grossed $6.5-million (U.S.), cracking the Top 10 in weekend box office. So far, it’s taken in more than $20-million. According to Peter Knegt, who monitors box office performance for the site IndieWire, the movie will likely make around $30-million in theatres, making it one of the five highest-grossing docs of all time. That would put it ahead of An Inconvenient Truth and all but one of Michael Moore’s movies.
The film has become a talking point in the conservative media and it’s easy to see why. It’s a baldly polemic essay about right-wing discomfort with the President disguised as a character study, one that emphasizes his policy failings while also dredging up personal controversies like Obama’s affiliation with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. And it’s nothing if not rabble-rousing. In one scene, the camera actually lingers on the burning visage of Benjamin Franklin as a $100 bill goes up in flames.
2016 is part of a recent wave of right-wing films released by Rocky Mountain Pictures, a boutique distributor that started off handling small-budget comedies and horror movies, but has become synonymous with conservative message films in the last few years. Its track record has been checkered, at best. The intelligent-design documentary Expelled, starring Ben Stein, found some partisans. But the first chapter of a trilogy based on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was poorly received, and documentaries about black conservatives (Runaway Slaves) and Billy Graham have barely made a dent. D’Souza’s movie, which he co-directed with John Sullivan, is easily RMP’s most successful release, both financially and in terms of its place in the national conversation, having been fortuitously released ahead of the Republican National Convention.
“This is the biggest film we’ve ever handled,” says Randy Slaughter, an affable Texan and one of the co-presidents of Rocky Mountain. He says one of the reasons for the film’s success has been the way it has activated a lot of conservatives who aren’t frequently catered to by Hollywood. “Most movies make a huge portion of their revenue on the weekends, from Friday to Sunday,” Slaughter notes. “But 40 per cent of our audience is seeing  in the middle of the week. It’s not kids who are seeing this movie, it’s adults. People who wouldn’t want to see a movie at a theatre with a lot of teenagers there. It’s infrequent moviegoers, people who usually only go once or twice a year.”
A big part of getting those people out has to do with the conservative media machine, which has rallied behind the film. 2016 gets named-checked constantly on Fox News, and on the loose network of right-wing radio blanketing the U.S. “Rush [Limbaugh] and [Sean] Hannity have a very loyal audience,” Slaughter says. “When they say, ‘This is a film all of America needs to see,’ there’s people out there that listen.” When 2016 opened on one screen in Houston in July, much of its success could be attributed to a local conservative radio pundit, who gave the movie wall-to-wall coverage and helped fill the theatre with ticket giveaways.
According to Slaughter, 2016 is already spawning imitators. “We’ve been bombarded with people’s scripts since this came out,” he says, before adding that he’s so far declined almost every offer, since his company is too small to handle more than one or two movies at a time. While conservative filmmakers may see hope in D’Souza’s movie, the question remains whether 2016 ‘s success is really the revelation of an untapped audience who are eager to have more films tailored to their ideology, or an election-year anomaly.
A test of the conservative market might come next month, when Atlas Shrugged: Part II rolls into theatres. (According to Slaughter, Rocky Mountain isn’t involved with the sequel.) In response to the mild reception of the first Atlas, producers have essentially rebooted the project, replacing the director and most of the cast. If audiences respond better to this version of Ayn Rand’s novel, perhaps other producers will begin putting serious money into conservative counterprogramming.
But if the market doesn’t support other conservative movies, it will continue to fall to smaller distributors to put them out. While there are plenty of eager right-wing filmmakers, Rocky Mountain is one of the few companies who are taking on conservative message movies, and Slaughter doesn’t see himself as a man on an ideological crusade. “I’ll put a movie out, as long as it’s legal and not pornographic, and I think there’s an audience,” he says. “I would have released a Michael Moore movie if they had given it to me."
A sampler of right-wing moviemaking
The last few years have seen a wave of message movies aimed directly at U.S. conservatives. Here are some highlights:
Atlas Shrugged: Part I – With only a few months before the rights to Ayn Rand’s tome would lapse, producer John Aglialoro hastily hired a rookie director and unknown cast to make the first leg of a planned trilogy. The resulting low-budget movie lost money in theatres, despite a strong built-in fanbase.
An American Carol – David Zucker, part of the legendary team who made the Airplane! movies and The Naked Gun, brought in prominent Hollywood conservatives like Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper for a much-too-broad farce about American progressives.
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed – Frustrated by what he saw as intolerance toward intelligent design, former Nixon speechwriter and game-show host Ben Stein made a movie about it, with himself at the centre. The first of many Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock imitation documentaries from the right.
Fireproof – Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron has now more or less dedicated his career to pious, explicitly Christian morality movies, including the rapture saga Left Behind, and this drama about a tormented firefighter.
An Inconsistent Truth – It’s a documentary. The title pretty much speaks for itself.
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