The Backstory on What Made '2016 Obama’s America' the Top Grossing Doc of 2012, 4th All-Time
In January, DocumentaryTelevision.com commissioned a Presidential Inauguration Case Study: How an independent documentary about Barack Obama became the top-grossing doc of 2012, and the fourth highest grossing doc of all time. 2016 Obama’s America claims that the president secretly burns with the angry, anti-colonial ideology of the Kenyan father he barely knew, and that as president he will find a way to impose his radical vision on the American people.
How did this rightwing documentary earn a small box office fortune, ranking it with progressive documentary hits like Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth?
Gregory Crofton investigated the development, production and successful distribution of 2016. Gregory is a journalist who worked at the Documentary Channel until its recent takeover by Participant Media. The case study was first published here on DocumentaryTelevision.com. 2016 Obama’s America is a $2.5 million co-production by John Sullivan, Dinesh D’Souza and Gerald Molen.
Launched with the tagline “Love Him Hate Him, You Don’t Know Him,” 2016 has grossed around $35 million. Opening in limited release in July 2012 on one screen in Houston, it went into wide release in late August in 1,091 theaters, with its widest release in September reaching 2,017 theaters.
The key players behind 2016 were:
Dinesh D’Souza: 2016 is based on The Roots of Obama’s Rage. Published in 2010, it reached #4 on the New York Times Best Seller List. D’Souza is a conservative writer and author of Illiberal Education, Letters to a Young Conservative, and The Enemy at Home. D’Souza’s book and film claim to “present information that Americans hadn’t heard about.”
John Sullivan is a filmmaker and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. He co-produced and co-directed 2016 with D’Souza. He had produced Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, an attack on evolution science that grossed nearly $8 million at the box office.
Gerald Molen is an experienced Hollywood producer behind such hits as Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park. He was introduced to D’Souza’s project through a mutual friend of Sullivan’s. Molen helped ensure that 2016 was a compelling film that conveys this information in an entertaining way, according to Sullivan. And in a way that works on the big screen. He said it was important not to regurgitate a political book, but to make a compelling movie.
Rocky Mountain Pictures: Ron Rodgers and Randy Slaughter are based in Salt Lake City, and each have 400-plus years’ experience distributing and marketing films. RMP’s biggest documentary release prior to 2016 Obama’s America was Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.
Origins and Timeline
Sullivan met D’Souza through a mutual friend to discuss book/film opportunities. Sullivan proposed that Roots of Obama’s Rage would make a good film. Work on the film began in 2011. Sullivan didn’t finish the final edit until just prior to its premiere on one screen in Houston on July 13. They would have liked to release it in June but it wasn’t ready.
Unlike most filmmakers, the producers didn’t create a trailer to pitch potential funders. Instead, they relied on D’Souza’s bestselling book and his personal network to sell the film.
D’Souza raised the money, along with Douglas Sain and Christopher Williams, from a wide range of conservative contacts under a for-profit group called “Obama’s America Foundation.” About 24 investors contributed to the venture. According to the principals, “The Republican Party did not fund the film.”
The production budget was $2.5 million. The filmmakers wouldn’t disclose the cost of marketing and promotion.
The development process took about three months. According to the principals, “It was based on Dinesh's books.” Field production was about four months, with a lot of the work condensed in one trip to UK, Kenya, Indonesia and India, and the post-production phase was completed in about two months.
There was no archive cost for the film. The filmmakers used the president’s own voice as a narrative thread -- the recordings were taken from Obama’s audio book, Dreams From My Father. Such use, Sullivan said, “is allowed under the fair-use clause of 1st Amendment.”
They relied on the marketing template created by Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11, also a political documentary that was released in a presidential election year (June 2004). Moore’s film grossed nearly $119 million to become the highest-grossing documentary of all time.
The film poster was designed by Mike Inks of MLI Design. “We wanted the poster to convey an examination of Obama and his next four years if he ran unchecked” Sullivan said.
The producers sent early screeners to key conservative media stars and arranged interviews. Glen Beck, the ultra-conservative TV and radio host, is friendly with D’Souza. Michael Berry, another conservative talk radio host, is also a friend.
The filmmakers also bought ad time on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Limbaugh is the king of conservative talk radio. He liked the film and promoted it outside the commercial ad time.
Instead of a wide release, they took a staged approach, beginning in the conservative city of Houston, and then rolling out to a limited number of screens in conservative areas. Houston is one of the top 10 U.S. theatrical markets. It provided a chance to impress all three national theater chains with 2016’s high gross per screen, which was $32,000 on opening night. “That was just phenomenal,” Sullivan said. “It blew away all our expectations.”
They also decided to premiere in Houston because it is the home of Michael Berry, the influential conservative radio host. Berry did a private screening the day before the premiere screening that involved free tickets through a radio promotion.
Social media helped boost great word-of-mouth reviews. Some viewers had visceral reactions to the film. There were standing ovations, and “God Bless America” shouts were often shared on Facebook and Twitter. In June the film’s Facebook page had 4,000 friends. By year-end, it had topped 300,000.
Podcasts, in retrospect, are an outlet Sullivan said he should have bought ad time on because they tend to have super-dedicated audiences.
The rollout was after Houston strategic and targeted. It was different than the initial launch for their previous film, Expelled, which was released on a fairly wide 1,052 screens.
“For 2016 it was an economic issue,” Sullivan said. “We couldn’t afford to go any wider at the time. This ended up working in our favor.”
Four more screens were added in Houston. Then it expanded to other conservative-heavy areas in Alaska and Nashville, then into larger cities in Louisiana, followed by Atlanta and New York City.
Perhaps its biggest night came on August 17th at Union Square, New York. It was the third highest grossing film at the theater complex behind The Dark Knight and The Bourne Legacy.
That week 2016 ramped up its distribution from 169 screens to 1,091 by the following Friday, August 24. Sullivan credits Rocky Mountain Pictures with this feat of distribution: 2016 reached its widest release in September with 2,107 screens.
To exhibit a film in a theater is costly. A print costs $1,000 alone. So as the cashflow rolled in, it went back out into marketing and expanding the film’s release. But, after the great results at Union Square, it was easier to raise marketing money.
“That’s when we accelerated things,” Sullivan said. “We had to get funding quickly. It’s always easier to get a marketing campaign funded once people have seen the movie.”
Sullivan outlined several hurdles the film had to overcome.
2016 had to fight against the audience pull of the summer Olympic Games. The games concluded August 12, before the presidential conventions, so that was another reason they ramped up their ad spend around August 24.
2016 experienced a broadcast media blackout: the big three networks would not sell ad time.
“We were never able to buy prime time TV,” Sullivan said. “We were always on cable, reality shows, Fox, CNN. So we just went after that market as best we could, along with talk radio.”
Negative reviews poured in: Read "Anti-Obama Screed," a negative review from The Hollywood Reporter.
The filmmakers only responded when there were specific attacks against the film, i.e. by President Obama’s office, and by Entertainment Weekly, which, according to Sullivan, identified the film as being “racist.”
Otherwise they relied on positive comments posted by conservative moviegoers who loved the film to counter the negatives.
The online movie review site Rotten Tomatoes had only a 30% positive review from critics but its users rated it 80% positive. “It’s kind of democratization of the Internet,” Sullivan said. “It used to be that six bad reviews would kill a film. Now audiences are leaving their own reviews. I think that gives people pause.”
Online rumors affected box office. Just as word of mouth, email marketing, and social media helped the movie soar, by late September a rumor spread that the film would air on Fox network before the election. Sullivan said that he even received some emails that spread this misinformation. This discouraged potential customers and put downward pressure on the box office.
“It was a great way to disrupt the movie,” said Sullivan, who says he doesn’t know who started the email campaign. “It could have been somebody doing nefarious business. Or just people who wanted to get it to a wider circulation before the election. Maybe they thought they were helping us.”
Ticket sales and home video sales may have taken a pre-election hit because of a highly negative D’Souza story that hit the wires in late October 2012.
A report exposed his marital infidelity and shredded his reputation as a pro-family, Catholic moralist. This likely cost him his job as president of a small Christian college in New York. Read the story here.
The Key Success Factors
According to the filmmakers, 2016 Obama’s America is a case study in how to build an audience for a conservative documentary despite a limited marketing budget.
According to Sullivan, the keystones are:
Provide great content for the target audience – conservatives hadn’t heard this compelling political story.
Come up with a great title: 2016 Obama’s America is simple and forward-looking.
The theatrical release was calculated to build core audience and provide information for people voting in the 2012 presidential election.
Market the film directly to your core audience through radio or social media groups.
Use a distributor that will tailor its release of the film to key markets, then build on them.
Work hard: Sullivan put in 16- to 18-hour days for months. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” he said. “We had to be constantly resourceful and shrewd at the same time.”
What Next for Team 2016?
Sullivan is focused on DVD and digital sales for 2016 right now, which he says are strong. And he plans to start work on another film project that will involve D’Souza, likely for release in 2014. Sullivan is also working on several optioned screenplays.