Partisan documentaries aim for political pull

Filmmakers eye B.O., influence amid presidential campaign

TAMPA, Fla. – The anti-Obama documentary “2016: Obama’s America” was a weekend box office surprise with $6.3 million as it expanded to more than 1,000 locations.

As the Republican National Convention gets off the ground Tuesday, and next week as the Democrats gather in Charlotte, several filmmakers are screening their projects in hopes of building similar buzz for their politically minded projects.

In addition to box office, the goal is a genuine impact on the race.

That’s the case with “The Hope and the Change,” debuting Tuesday at a Tampa venue. Pic chronicles the deflated hopes of supporters of Barack Obama. Previewed on Fox News’ “Hannity” on Friday, it comes from director-writer Stephen K. Bannon and producer David Bossie, two prolific conservative filmmakers who say they set out to interview Democrats and independents who have soured on the president.

The model is 2004, when Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” took off at the box office, with a worldwide gross of $222 million, proving that people will pay for political documentaries when the promise is a passionate mix of partisanship and entertainment.

While some critics have dismissed some of the conservative docs as more infomercial than entertainment, there’s proof that the right mix, at the right time and with the right marketing, can strike a chord. The question is what happens after Labor Day, as partisan messaging reaches a fever pitch. It’s one thing to debut a politically charged title in the summer; it’s another to debut it in October, when 30-second campaign spots will soak the airwaves. In mid-October 2010, Freestyle Releasing distributed “I Want Your Money,” with posters featuring President Obama pointing his index finger, Uncle Sam-style, but it failed to fully capture Tea Partier enthusiasm at the midterms, perhaps because they were otherwise engaged in campaign activities on the weekends.

The same seems to be true for scripted fare. David Zucker screened his comedy spoof “An American Carol,” a star-studded satire on Moore, at the Republican Convention in 2008, but its take after its October debut that year hardly matched the election excitement. The same goes for another pic that debuted that month, from a perspective on the other side of the spectrum, Oliver Stone’s “W.”

“There is a confluence of factors that you have to have in place. The Michael Moore 9/11 movie was lightning in a bottle. The Swift Boat situation was lightning in a bottle,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who consulted on the rollout of Moore’s movie, referring not just to “Fahrenheit 9/11” but the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth book and mini-documentaries that came later in 2004. “Those things are difficult to come around again.”

Lehane co-wrote “Knife Fight” with director Bill Guttentag. While IFC recently picked up the drama about the harder edges of a political campaign for distribution, it is eyeing a release in January.

“There was sort of a sense that people were saturated with stuff, that people were going to be tired of the campaign at that point,” Lehane said. “Every ad is a negative ad. The thinking was January is less cluttered and people have a chance to digest what is going on.”

“Knife Fight” will get a screening during the Democratic Convention, sponsored by Tom Steyer and a California ballot initiative to close a corporate tax loophole and use the proceeds to create clean energy jobs. Two of the film’s stars, Eric McCormack and Richard Schiff, are expected to attend.

There also are a host of issue-oriented films aiming to get some buzz out of the conventions. The Impact Arts and Film Fund is sponsoring a film festival in Tampa and Charlotte, with highlights including an appearance by Jeff Bridges introducing the childhood hunger documentary “Hunger Hits Home” and a screening of the Weinstein Co.’s comedy “Butter.” The education reform org StudentsFirst is planning screenings at both conventions of “Won’t Back Down,” which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as mothers trying to turn around their children’s failing school. Goal of the screening at the party gatherings is to stir even more debate about education reform, as already was apparent when the New York Times’ Frank Bruni wrote a long column about it earlier this month. Fox will release it in late September.

The biggest hurdle, Lehane noted, is “distribution. Ultimately that comes back to having some kind of content that viewers find interesting that is beyond the 5% who are true believers.”

“The Hope and the Change” will have a limited release, but Bannon and Bossie say they are intent on major distribution on TV platforms. It will screen on Tuesday at the RNC, as well as at the Democratic National Convention next week, in a theater near Bank of America Stadium where President Obama will deliver his acceptance speech.

“‘The Hope and the Change’ is not geared toward conservatives. It is not geared to rallying the base. Our film is targeted toward Democrats and independents who voted for President Obama,” Bannon said.

A movie that may have even more of a political charge is “Occupy Unmasked,” another effort from Bannon and Bossie that is one of the final projects featuring the late Andrew Breitbart. It will be get a limited theatrical and day-and-date VOD release in late September from Magnet Releasing, co-owned by Mark Cuban.

The message of “The Hope and the Change” is disappointment in Obama, and that will be out there whether viewers watch the film or merely see its ads. The film, its marketing and its TV deal is “exactly the reason I went to the Supreme Court,” Bossie said. He’s referring to that fact that before the high court’s landmark Citizens United decision, he might not have been able to put out advertise for it, perhaps just as important in messaging as the film itself. The Federal Election Commission in 2004 deemed the promotion and broadcast of Citizen’s United’s “Celsius 41.11” as electioneering communication too close to the election and prohibited under campaign finance reform laws. So in 2008 Bossie made “Hillary, the Movie” and intentionally challenged those laws, arguing that he should be able to advertise his movie just as Moore would be able to, and the result was the high court’s landmark 2010 ruling.

This cycle Bossie finds himself up against not just other documentaries but what is expected to be an avalanche of ads from campaigns and outside groups, the latter of which have fewer restrictions after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Nevertheless, he thinks “The Hope and the Change” can cut through the clutter and be “able to break through a bit.”

“You have all these cable platforms. You certainly have a lot of television ad competition,” Bossie said of the coming months. “But our ads are for a movie. People may tune out when they hear ‘My name is Barack Obama and I approve this message,’ or ‘I am Mitt Romney and I approve this message.'”