Here's my latest story in the print version of Variety, on newsstands Monday, about an emerging industry of filmmakers from the right.
Before the opening credits, before any shots of Alaska, before we even hear narration from Sarah Palin herself, Stephen K. Bannon's reverential documentary "The Undefeated" features byte-sized clips of stars like Rosie O'Donnell, Matt Damon and David Letterman.
One after another they are seen and heard bashing her, to the point where the words and voices become a nameless, expletive-filled tirade. Interlaced is a passage from Sermon on the Mount: "Every good tree bringeth forth good truth; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil truth; by their fruits ye shall know them."
The provocative opener is fitting — not just because "The Undefeated" uses Hollywood to make its point, but that it reflects conservative efforts to tap into the industry's powers of persuasion.
With varying degrees of success, a genre of unabashedly conservative documentaries has emerged in the past five years or so, inspired by Michael Moore and other filmmakers from the left who have been among the most savvy in making an impact.
Most of these projects from the right sell on the Internet, video-on-demand or via streaming, but "The Undefeated" represents a test of just how far a conservative documentary can go at the multiplex. The movie will roll out in at least 10 cities in AMC Theaters starting July 15.
The difference with "The Undefeated" is that it is so tied to speculation over Palin's presidential prospects — which may make it a tougher sell if she decides not to run. It may be the closest thing yet to a film version of Palin's memoir "Going Rogue," and although she did not participate in making it, she has given it her blessing and allowed Bannon to use her voice from the "Rogue" audiobook.
Plans are to premiere later this month in Iowa, the first state to vote in nomination season. And if she does get in the race, Bannon even sees the movie as resetting the way that candidates roll out their campaigns, with a documentary format taking the place of the traditional tactic of publishing a book.
"If a film works, it resonates for a long time," Bannon says. "I think we have only started to scratch the surface on films about issues and politics."
Already the film has created enough of a buzz to trigger a response from the left. Brave New Films' Robert Greenwald, a progressive filmmaker, has his doubts that the movie is anything more than a glorified PSA. In fact, he's launched a campaign to collect reminders of the parts of Palin's story that "The Undefeated" does not dwell upon.
Bannon sees a largely untapped market for docus aimed at conservatives, with the potential to draw as loyal and fervent a following as conservative authors, AM radio and Fox News. "The Undefeated" cost about $1 million to make and is being financed by Victory Film Group and distributed by ARC Entertainment. Bannon wrote and directed the project, which is produced by Glenn Bracken Evans and Dan Fleuette.
A surface warfare officer in the Navy and former Goldman Sachs investment banker and film financier, Bannon shifted gears in 2004, when he took a plunge into directing with "In the Face of Evil: Reagan's War in Word and Deed," which proved successful enough to sustain a series of more docs at the same time he served as chairman of Genius Products. He still has a dealmaker's zeal, tapping political media to build buzz for "The Undefeated," having held a series of select screenings over the past few weeks and previewed the pic on "Hannity."