Hillary Clinton has noted, on the campaign trail and in debates, that “Citizens United was about me.”
Her point is that she grasps campaign finance reform because it was so personal: The famous court decision has its roots in a 2008 documentary called “Hillary, the Movie,” which, to say the least, was not flattering.
Get ready for a new round of anti-Hillary projects, ones that may not instigate another Supreme Court fight, but could generate some box office business.
Late last month, Dinesh D’Souza unveiled his trailer for “Hillary’s America” at the Conservative Political Action Conference, aiming to capitalize on the success of a 2012 documentary, “2016: Obama’s America,” which grossed a hefty $33.4 million at the domestic box office that year. According to Box Office Mojo, that was enough to place it as the No. 2 grossing political documentary of all time, after Michael Moore’s runaway hit “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Meanwhile, David Bossie, the president of Citizens United who produced “Hillary, the Movie,” says that he is planning a follow-up for this year, with the tentative title “Hillary, the Sequel.”
He says that the movie will “have a host of very interesting material related to her time at the State Department and the Clinton Foundation.”
He won’t reveal other details, but noted that for the past two years, Citizens United filed 40 Freedom of Information Act requests and a dozen lawsuits against the State Department. Bossie became a familiar name in Washington in the 1990s for his investigations of the Clintons. He resigned in 1998 amid controversy over the release of edited prison recordings of Webb Hubbell, a Clinton law associate.
D’Souza’s “Hillary’s America” will be no less direct in its target. Clinton is a focus of the project — one shot in the trailer shows her on CNN with the banner, “Clinton: I deleted only personal emails.” Another features a blonde woman looking out the window of the Oval Office.
But she is not the entire focus. The trailer starts with D’Souza asking the question, “Who are these Democrats?” With a mix of news footage and reenactments, it promises to “go behind the curtain and discover the soul of the Democratic Party,” and how the party went from supporting “slavery to enslavement.”
“What if their plan is to steal America?” D’Souza says at the end of the trailer. “Who will stop them now?”
The trailer also features D’Souza’s booking photo after he was indicted and charged in 2014 with making illegal campaign contributions by using “straw donors” to a U.S. Senate campaign. He was sentenced to five years probation, including eight months in a community confinement center in San Diego.
At his sentencing, D’Souza told the judge in the case that he regretted breaking the law, but he has argued in interviews that he was selectively targeted for prosecution. In the trailer for “Hillary’s America,” D’Souza says, “It all began when the Obama administration tried to shut me up — what did I learn?”
“This movie is not just about Hillary. It is about progressivism and the Democratic party,” D’Sousa says. “It is about the Democratic party’s central claim, which is causal justice, looking out for the little guy. What we are saying is that is not true. It is not true then and it is not true now.”
If that gets those on the left crying “Southern strategy” or “Donald Trump,” in the case of a political documentary, provocative is the point, especially this year. Reactions to the YouTube video have run 5-2 positive, but more important may be the number views: more than 900,000.
“Now more than ever, movies like this have a particular resonance and relevance in the marketplace,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore, which conducts box office and media research.
He points to the success of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” in the 2004 election cycle, and “2016: Obama’s America” in 2012. The interest is even greater this year.
“This year the rules have really been changed,” he says. “There are so many contentious points of view, and it is a very highly charged political climate. Everyone is talking politics now. It is on everyone’s mind.”
There’s some irony in that other Clinton projects got sidelined well before she even got into the race. After NBC announced a Hillary Clinton miniseries and CNN unveiled plans for a documentary project, the Republican National Committee threatened to freeze them out of debate sponsorship, arguing that they were going to be “political ads masked as unbiased entertainment.” The director of the CNN documentary said his work would be investigative and fair, but both projects were abandoned.
D’Souza says that they plan to have a premiere in July at a Cleveland theater close to the Republican National Convention, and then to open the next week, with the goal of a wide release. He is in talks with four distributors for the rights. At its peak, “2016: Obama’s America” was in more than 2,000 theaters.
“If you want to be heard politically, if you want your message to reach a wide number of people, this is the time to do it,” D’Souza says. “This year, ordinarily apathetic Americans pay attention to politics.”
The budget for “Hillary’s America,” D’Souza says, is $12.5 million, with initial prints and advertising. The production cost $5 million, double the amount of “2016.” The increase helped pay for more expensive scenes, like reenactments.
He said that it is funded by small- and medium- sized investors, but that they have no affiliation with the Republican National Committee or the campaigns, or the “Koch Brothers or any of the high-profile players in the campaign.”
“I have actually made a decision to stay out of the Republican race and not endorse anybody,” he says. “I don’t want the film to be seen as an extension of the Republican establishment or of any other candidate. This is a film about the other side of the aisle.”
The focus on the Democratic party, rather than just Clinton herself, left open the possibility that Clinton’s rival Bernie Sanders could upend the race and secure the nomination. Much of “Hillary’s America” was shot in the fall, just as it was becoming clear that Sanders was a serious challenger.
D’Souza expects what he calls “good controversy,” but argues that his project is being done in a “very responsible way.” Not too surprisingly, the trailer already has gotten some pushback.
“I would love to cross swords with Michael Moore or Van Jones or Elizabeth Warren,” he says of the potential reaction.
If there is one figure who has served as an unintended inspiration for conservative filmmakers, it is Moore.
“Fahrenheit 9/11,” which grossed almost $120 million at the box office, opened in July 2004, just as President George W. Bush was running for reelection.
After its runaway success, Bossie, a well-known Washington political activist who ran the conservative advocacy org Citizens United, rushed a response, called “Celsius 41.11,” that debuted in the waning weeks of the presidential campaign.
Box office results were minute compared with the “Fahrenheit” haul, but the experience was just the start of Bossie’s production company, Citizens United Prods., which has produced a host of conservative documentaries ever since, depending heavily on home video sales.
When Bossie set out to show “Hillary, the Movie” in 2008 on on-demand platforms, he challenged federal election law restrictions that would have considered its promotional ads as electioneering, in violation of campaign finance laws prohibiting corporate and union spending on such spots so close to an election.
That paved the way for Bossie to pursue a First Amendment court challenge, eventually leading to the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 decision that opened the door to independent corporate expenditures advocating for or against candidates.
Even as the decision has been a rallying cry for Clinton and Bernie Sanders about the corruptive influence of money in politics, Bossie defends the ruling, arguing that it has freed up filmmakers of all types to make political movies that could be distributed and advertised when it really mattered — just before an election.
“That is why we had to go to court,” Bossie says. “Whether it is ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ or ‘Hillary, the Sequel,’ it is important to put these films out at a time when people are engaged in the election.”
To Bossie and those who backed him in his case, it didn’t make sense that “Fahrenheit 9/11,” distributed by Lionsgate, fell under a media exemption, while “Hillary, the Movie,” distributed by Citizens United, a nonprofit with corporate contributions, did not.
In 2004 Bossie had filed a Federal Election Commission challenge to “Fahrenheit 9/11,” so he was well aware that the release plans for “Hillary, the Movie” also would face scrutiny.
As the Supreme Court was about to consider the case, some surprising organizations came to Bossie’s defense, like the ACLU, which had been the target of a Citizens United documentary, “ACLU: At War With America.”
The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press also argued that a problematic part of campaign finance law it that it left it up to courts or Congress to determine which organizations got a media exemption and which did not.
Progressive groups like People for the American Way counter that the “real-world consequence” of Citizens United has been to expand the political power of corporations at the expense of the political freedom of citizens.
Bossie, who recently defended the ruling in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, argues that filmmakers of all partisan stripes will not have to face federal election challenges to their marketing and release plans. He said that it was too soon to reveal release plans for “Hillary, the Sequel,” although it will get a theatrical run.
Clinton has taken note on the campaign trail, citing it in her New Hampshire concession speech and at other times noting that “now I’m in their cross-hairs again.”
“They took aim at me, but they ended up damaging our entire democracy,” she said in September, according to the AP. “We can’t let them pull that same trick again.”