Stephen K. Bannon’s ascension from Breitbart News executive to President-elect Donald Trump’s chief White House strategist and senior counselor shocked the world, in no small part because the alt-right figure has no background in government management. However, it’s not the first time Bannon has attempted to lead an industry outside of his professional experience. Bannon’s new role may be an ideal platform for propagandistic ambitions, but his career in independent film — first in distribution, then production — casts doubt on how much he believes in any of it.
Ten years ago, Bannon oversaw the distribution of independent films released by Wellspring Media, a company that supported a wide range of international cinema as well as gay-themed and other “transgressive” titles. Movies acquired and released under his tenure include the experimental LGBT documentary “Tarnation” and “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry,” a pro-Kerry documentary that opened during the 2004 election. According to one insider who dealt with Bannon at this time, he directly approved and often supported several of these films with great enthusiasm.
It’s a history that raises fascinating questions about the newly minted White House staffer’s motives: Did Bannon, whose alt-right allegiances have turned him into a leading proponent of nationalism, shelve his personal beliefs for the sake of perceived business opportunities? Did those beliefs — and a tolerance for the hate groups drawn to the alt-right movement — come later? Or does he, as so many have theorized about the president-elect, only believe in himself?
A Swift Rise and Fall
A former banker for Goldman Sachs, Bannon invested in film production as early as Sean Penn’s 1991 directorial debut, “The Indian Runner.” From there, he ran an investment firm while dabbling in other entertainment industry ventures, which included weaseling his way into a share of the “Seinfeld” profits to serving as an executive producer on 1999’s “Titus,” during which time he also worked at production-management company The Firm.
By 2004, he was vice chairman of a Las Vegas-based investment group, American Vantage Media Corp., which acquired Wellspring Media. This placed Bannon at the head of a respected independent film distribution company at crucial moment in its history.
The company had filed for bankruptcy at the end of the ’90s; by 2004, it was on the brink of being shut down. That was when American Vantage, with Bannon at its helm, took over. Announcing the deal, Bannon said, “We will create shareholder value through the support of artists doing great work.”
The brief period in which Bannon explored the prospects of independent film distribution reflects an opportunism rampant among Wall Street executives at the time. The same year as the Wellspring acquisition, American Vantage also acquired Hypnotic, a production company co-founded by director Doug Liman. In a statement at that time, Bannon said, “We believe this acquisition will provide an excellent foundation for American Vantage’s continuing expansion into the entertainment and media business.” (That company ultimately changed hands as well.)
Happier Times With “Tarnation”
While Bannon was known to clash with some employees on a personal level, he supported the company’s sensibilities. During his time at Wellspring, the company went great lengths to establish itself in the film community with a staff that included Marie Therese Guirgis (now a producer whose recent credits include the climate change documentary “Before The Flood”), Ryan Werner (who later started Cinetic Marketing), Courtney Ott (also at Cinetic Marketing), Dan Goldberg (now VP marketing, The Orchard). In short order, Wellspring developed a reputation alongside other boutique distributors as a home for top-shelf cinema.
Highlights among its releases at this time included Vincent Gallo’s provocative “The Brown Bunny,” Todd Solondz’s post-9/11 meditation “Palindromes,” Alexander Sokurov’s ambitious long-take experiment “Russian Ark,” and Caouette’s “Tarnation,” which the company acquired ahead of its Cannes premiere under challenging circumstances.
The movie, which Caouette assembled on his iMac out of home movies and reenactments, cost famously the young filmmaker a mere $200. The vivid, expressionistic narrative tracks Caouette from adolescence to young adulthood as he copes with his emerging sexuality and his mother’s schizophrenia.
When it premiered at Sundance in January 2004 , much of “Tarnation” included unlicensed footage and music, rendering its initial cut unreleasable. Bannon signed off on Wellspring joining the project as executive producer, providing finishing funds for a new cut.
“This is nothing less than a groundbreaking work,” Guirgis, then Wellspring’s head of acquisitions, said at the time. “We were determined to do whatever it took to bring this film to the world.”
However, Bannon’s inexperience revealed itself in his failure to resuscitate Wellspring’s financials. He ran the New York-based company from his offices in Beverly Hills, surrounded by finance and legal experts who had as little background in film distribution as he did. In early 2005, Genius Products acquired American Vantage Media.
Around the same time, Bannon picked up on reports that The Weinstein Company was raising significant funds to crack the home video market. Here, the Wellspring library’s 1,000 titles became a far greater asset than its capacity for theatrical releases. These included everything from “The 400 Blows” and “Breathless” to “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” as well as “enlightening health and wellness programming” that included Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth” and titles featuring the work of Deepak Chopra, Dr. Andrew Weill, and Alan Watts. Soon, Bannon had a new job: running Genius, which TWC acquired in December 2005 for $16 million as its home entertainment arm.
Weinstein closed Wellspring’s theatrical arm shortly thereafter, laying off 10 staffers. Its final release was “Unknown White Male,” even as CEO Trevor Drinkwater tried to spin the situation. “Genius remains committed to the independent film industry and we are moving forward with indie releases,” he said in a statement. “We’re just going to handle them in a different manner than we did before.”
While Bannon moved on from the distribution business, he found his way into the film world in a more direct fashion: Making his own movies.
Stephen K. Bannon, Alt-Right Auteur
Even as Bannon ran Wellspring, he developed a side career directing conservative-leaning documentaries, starting with the celebratory 2004 Ronald Reagan portrait, “In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed.” Since then he’s directed eight more films, including the Sarah Palin hagiography “Undefeated” (2011), “Occupy Unmasked” (2012), and his most recent, “Torchbearer” (2016), in which “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson argues that life is absurd without God.
“I don’t do things for packs,” Bannon said while promoting the release of “Undefeated.” “I’m an independent filmmaker.” And while speaking to a grassroots journalist at the Right Online conference in Minneapolis, Bannon sang the praises of AMC Theaters, Cinedigm, and ARC Entertainment, which partnered on the film’s release. “These people are certainly not right-wing Republicans,” he said. “They’re moderate to slightly liberal. But they’re Hollywood capitalists who have to report to investors and shareholders. They see this as a story of modern America.”
It was around this time that Bannon launched an internet radio show on Breitbart News. When he became the executive chairman for the conservative site after founder Andrew Breitbart’s death in 2012, his rhetoric intensified. “It’s very important that we have a full and frank discussion about where the country’s going,” he said, hinting at the prospects of a Palin candidacy and calling for a campaign that took place as “an old-fashioned throwdown.”
He has remained in touch with some contacts in the independent film community, corresponding with former colleagues who reached out to him to express anger over the Trump campaign. Bannon has reportedly been quick to explain his motives in grandiose political terms.
As a filmmaker, Bannon’s techniques are blatantly ideological. When he released “Undefeated,” he described his editing style as “kinetic,” a rapid-fire approach designed to “almost overwhelm the audience.” It’s a story that Bannon seems to be telling with new tools today — although, as usual, his true motivations are up for debate.