Right wing conservatives finally have their answer to Michael Moore — with the box-office numbers to prove it.
After many years of conservative stumbles at the movies — i.e. “Michael Moore Hates America,” “Celsius 41.11,” “Cool It,” “Occupy Unmasked” — author-turned-filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza has blazed a trail of anti-progressive film propaganda that’s unmatched. In the last five years, D’Souza has scored the top two highest-grossing non-concert, non-Disney documentaries at the U.S. box office, 2012’s “Obama’s America” ($33.5 million) and 2014’s “America: Imagine the World Without Her” ($14.4 million). (Third place: Last year’s “Amy,” which earned $8.4 million.)
Put aside for a moment that D’Souza’s work has been called “fact-twisting, error-laden paranoia [and] the worst kind of smear journalism” (Columbia Journalism Review), a “laughable embarrassment” (Salon) and a “national disgrace” (The New York Times); in today’s challenging theatrical movie business, $10-million-plus grosses for a documentary without cute monkeys or Harry Styles is a real shocker.
Surviving terrible reviews (scoring, respectively, 25% and 8%, on Rotten Tomatoes, for his first two films) and a felony conviction for violating campaign contribution laws (no jail time served, despite what you’ll see in the new film), D’Souza is back with his latest piece of agitprop “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party,” opening nationally in theaters on July 22.
In an election year, with animosity towards likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at all-time highs, and a Republican base fired-up about an aggressive Trump candidacy, “Hillary’s America” may be poised to follow in the box-office footsteps of D’Souza’s previous hack-job hits.
“I do think we’re in a much more fervent climate than in 2012,” said John Sullivan, co-director and co-writer of both “Obama’s America” and “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” and who oversaw marketing and advertising for both titles.
In the previous election cycle, when “Obama’s America” broke out, Sullivan said they were targeting an audience that felt Barack Obama wasn’t “vetted by the media, so people wanted to figure him out.” This time out, the conservative base isn’t just suspicious; they’re angry.
The release of “Obama’s America” in 2012 also benefited from an opening weekend that had few other adult alternatives (“Ice Age: Continental Drift” was the only other wide opener). “It filled national exhibitor need for counterprogramming, and the needs of an audience looking for more conservative content,” said publicist Alfred Hopton, who is also working on “Hillary’s America.”
Hopton said that they will be utilizing similar tactics to promote “Hillary’s America” as “Obama’s America,” including baiting the leftwing media.
“We knew the left would not like this movie no matter what, so why step around it? Engage with it,” he said. “That was [producer] Mark [Joseph’s] strategy and it worked for me.”
For instance, producers were happy to give review copies of “Obama’s America” to critics and progressives, who would naturally dislike the movie, because “it gave us something to respond to,” explained Hopton. “If Matt Taibbi writes a piece in Rolling Stone, we know he’s not going to like it, but it’s just going to raise more awareness.”
But this year, “Hillary’s America” faces an entertainment marketplace that is decidedly different than it was in 2012. For one, the post-Independence Day season is more crowded. On July 15 and 22, the film will be going out against the new “Ghostbusters” and “Star Trek” movies as well as wide-release thrillers “The Infiltrator” and “Lights Out.”
However, the bigger shift potentially effecting “Hillary’s America” is changing viewing habits. The audiences for D’Souza’s films skew decidedly older, according to Sullivan, which helped boost the box-office of the previous films. One indication of their aging demographic is that ticket sales on the first two films stayed robust during the weekdays, he said.
But in 2016, all industry trends suggest that older moviegoers have figured out their Roku boxes and Netflix subscriptions, and are increasingly staying at home. For evidence, look to the left, where Michael Moore’s latest documentary, “Where to Invade Next” earned over $3.8 million at the U.S. box office. This may sound paltry compared to Moore’s previous hits, such as “Fahrenheit 9/11” ($119 million), “Bowling for Columbine” ($21.5) and “Capitalism: A Love Story” ($14.3). But given that ticket sales for documentaries have been, in total, on a general downward trend in the last few years, with the exception of “Amy,” Moore’s latest theatrical numbers are understandable.
If “Hillary’s America” bucks the trend, the rightwing will certainly have some bragging rights. But despite the GOP Convention bounce and expected bulk ticket sales from key Republican and conservative party groups, all signs suggest that “Hillary’s America” won’t be able to repeat the success of D’Souza’s first film in theaters. Digitally, that’s another story — but digital numbers aren’t good for publicity and propaganda: They don’t make headlines the same way an opening weekend box office does.
Still, “Hillary’s America” could do some damage to the former First Lady’s campaign. According to Sullivan, exit polls of “Obama’s America” audiences indicated that approximately 1 million people changed their intended vote after seeing the film, either by deciding not to vote for Obama or voting for Romney when they weren’t planning to prior to seeing the film.
“I think it had a major voice,” said Sullivan. “Just like after seeing ‘Super Size Me,’ I said, ‘I’m never eating at McDonald’s again,’ I think there are documentaries that can have a huge impact.”
Watch the trailer for “Hillary’s America,” available exclusively on IndieWire, below: