When Hillary Clinton’s campaign team clashed with Donald Trump’s strategists at a Harvard University forum last week, the most polarizing figure, outside of the candidates themselves, was the man who wasn’t there: Steve Bannon. Trump’s campaign chairman and incoming chief strategist made his early fortune as a Hollywood investment banker, hitting paydirt by collecting a share of the returns from “Seinfeld,” then went on to run Breitbart.com, which he calls the “platform for the ‘alt-right,’” a white nationalist movement.
But along the way, Bannon and a handful of other filmmakers built up a cottage industry of conservative documentaries. The films weren’t blockbusters, but they helped boost their makers’ profiles, particularly at forums like the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. As a number of conservatives were complaining that liberal Hollywood was shutting them out of jobs because of their political inclinations, Bannon saw something else.
“People have very strong political beliefs, but at the end of the day, I haven’t met a bigger set of capitalists than I have met in this town,” he told Variety in 2011. What set him apart wasn’t the success or failure of his movies, but the fact that he moved seamlessly from the role of creative to on-air personality to dealmaker. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the former Navy officer, Harvard MBA, and boutique banker would reveal the fiery, right-wing sensibility that has come to define his profile today.
Bannon arrived on the entertainment scene in 1990, setting up shop in Beverly Hills as a banker and financier at an opportune time to capitalize on a vibrant market for indie production-distribution entities. “He was a banker looking to do deals. He had no other agenda other than that,” says one person who worked with him.
Trevor Drinkwater, who partnered with him on Genius Products, says, “I can’t tell how many times we had dinners with people with very different political views. I knew he leaned right, but he would just listen to them and hear them out. He didn’t force his opinions.”
In the 2000s, Bannon became a partner in the management and production company The Firm. There, he alerted the production team to a hot book prospect when it was in manuscript form — Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” Bannon, who had a relationship with Brown, knew the book would be a valuable film property, sources say. That led The Firm to pursue the project aggressively through 20th Century Fox, though the deal eventually fell apart over money. Sources who worked with him at the time say there were no indications of inflammatory politics. Nor were there indications of the accusation of racial bias or anti-Semitism that have been leveled against him. “We were all Jews [at The Firm], so we would have noticed, and it wouldn’t have been tolerated,” one former colleague says.
In 2004, Bannon released his first foray into partisan filmmaking, “In the Face of Evil,” which depicted Ronald Reagan as a lonely crusader against communism. It didn’t get a theatrical release, but it set the stage for things to come, expressing the view that a solitary figure can rise up to change the course of history, a theme that Bannon would echo in his later support of Trump.
Seven years later, Bannon released “The Undefeated,” a $1 million, reverential documentary about Sarah Palin, just as she was pondering whether to run for president. Palin didn’t participate, but she did allow her voice to be used from a recording for her audiobook “Going Rogue.” Distributed by Arc Entertainment, the film grossed less than $120,000 in 14 theaters before going to home video. That didn’t seem to matter, though, as it drew reams of publicity, including heavy mention in a Newsweek profile of Palin.
Bannon even predicted that the concept — a documentary preceding a presidential run — would mark a new way of positioning candidates in advance of a campaign. In his few months as one of Trump’s top political advisers, Bannon has seen that the scrutiny can be merciless. The words he once used to describe life in Hollywood could well apply to the Washington ecosystem he will soon be joining. Said Bannon, “It is one of the most Darwinian of environments that I have ever seen.”
Ted Johnson contributed to this report.