At the recent ABC News-Yahoo debate, when the Lazarus-like Newt Gingrich sought to show his empathy for the hardship of small business owners in a brutal economy, he cited one of his ventures, run by wife Callista, called Gingrich Prods.
“It’s a very small company; does basically movies and books and things like that,” the candidate said.
The Gingriches have $500,000 to $1 million in assets in the for-profit company — small by major studio standards, but actually rather prolific when it comes to making a splash in the growing cottage industry of conservative filmmaking, enough for the National Review to dub him “Hollywood Gingrich.”
What has set Gingrich apart is his marketing of the movies, which has been intertwined with his campaign, as he and Callista have made screenings of the conservative-themed docus like “Nine Days That Changed the World” and “A City Upon on Hill” a routine part of their public appearances.
This may be the first presidential race where the lines have truly blurred between book/film tour and campaign stop, generating its own amount of criticism that some candidates were in the race for current or future profit. A case in point: Herman Cain campaigned for president but also promoted his none-too-subtly titled autobiography “This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House.”
“I am a cultural teacher, with a political campaign to change government. And that’s how I see myself,” Gingrich told the New York Times.
Although Gingrich’s revival has been attributed to his debate performances and the appetite of the anti-Mitt Romney right, the candidate’s promotion of his documentary work has had the added advantage of giving him a profile when he was otherwise being written off. “It at least gave him something to talk about and the ability to draw a crowd when he had no money and he was left for dead,” says Stephen Bannon, a conservative filmmaker and radio talkshow host.
The exodus of his campaign staff in June was triggered by Gingrich’s decision to go on a long vacation with his wife, but another reported factor was the focus on documentary screenings rather than campaigning in early primary states. Bannon, however, thinks it proved prescient in future election messaging in that Gingrich was able to use film when he had little else.
During the summer, as Gingrich’s campaign was in the gutter, the screenings gave the candidate a promotional platform that, especially in conservative bastions, still drew crowds. An August showing of “A City Upon a Hill,” about American exceptionalism, a central theme of his campaign, garnered about 400 people at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, according to the Orange County Register. Gingrich predicted at the event that “over the next 60 days, you will see a campaign that is fundamentally different from anything you’ve seen.” He’s held about a half dozen screenings in Iowa, including an October event at Loras College that drew about 150, according to press accounts.
His screenings play to a very different audience, Bannon says. “These films showed difference aspects of (the messages the campaign was) trying to get out, what you can’t get out in a 30-second spot.” In other words, to the conservatives who have now taken to him, they reinforced the brand of Gingrich as a man of ideas rather than a blow-dried candidate.
“It is an unconventional way to bring about information and educate people and introduce people to him,” says David Bossie, who has partnered with Gingrich Prods. to produce seven documentaries via Citizens United, the production unit founded by Bossie that has become the dream factory of conservative documentaries. Citizens United uses online and direct mail to drive sales rather than screenings.
Bossie, a GOP operative who had been working as chief congressional Whitewater investigator before Gingrich fired him in 1998, reunited with Gingrich in a chance meeting at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2007. By then, Citizens United was in full swing as the right’s answer to Michael Moore (and would soon release “Hillary, the Movie,” the scathing documentary about Hillary Clinton that would provide the nexus for the Supreme Court’s landmark decision overturning campaign finance laws, allowing corporations to directly spend money for or against candidates).
When Bossie and Gingrich talked, between their respective speaking engagements at the conference, Bossie says he broached the idea of turning Gingrich’s book “Rediscovering God in America” into a film.
“A week later we met for a cup of coffee, and he said, ‘I want to do these and have Callista in them, the two of us together.’?”
“Rediscovering God in America,” about the importance of the Almighty to the nation’s founders and successive leaders, has been the top seller of all of the Gingrich productions, moving more than 300,000 and 400,000 units, Bossie says. The biographical “Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny” sold about 125,000 to 150,000, and “Nine Days That Changed the World,” about Pope John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage to Poland, is nearing sales of 100,000 units. The productions are not small: 50 or more crew members have worked on the projects, with treks to places like Poland and the Vatican and interview with such figures as Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel.
If Bossie has hard feelings about the fallout in the 1990s, he doesn’t show it. He calls Gingrich “a natural” and “incredibly smart” as well as a close friend. “It’s been a great run,” he says.
He credits Callista Gingrich especially for helping come up with the idea of focusing the Pope John Paul biopic on the Poland trip. And as a musician trained in the French horn, she helped to bring about the original scores for the projects, he says.
Kevin Knoblock, who directed and wrote almost all of the movies, said that for “Nine Days,” she got her choir, the Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, to sing some of the sacred music cues. He credits Newt as a “gifted storyteller” but also as someone “who loves movies and is fascinated with the filmmaking process.”
University of Iowa professor David Perlmutter sees the screenings as another element to motivate caucus goers to show up on Jan. 3, even akin to the merchandising that is sold hand in hand with the release of a major blockbuster. While the Gingriches continue to promote their documentaries, for now plans for future projects, like one on Margaret Thatcher and another on religion in public spaces, have been put on hold.
But Bossie still sees a future for Gingrich in film.
“I am hopeful that he wins, and we can make a film with him as president,” he says.