Compared to the big studio releases that can scoop up $50 million in a single weekend, a "success" in the world of documentary looks like chump change. Aside from the unpredictable performance of Michael Moore's 2004 doc Fahrenheit 9/11, which rounded out at $119 million, most of the films on the highest grossing documentaries of all time list bow out with around $25 million.
So when a documentary starts earning seven-digit weekend grosses, people pay attention. That's the case with 2016 Obama's America, a new documentary from author Dinesh D'Souza, which first premiered in July on a single screen in Texas, grossing a whopping $32,000. Leveraging the buzz, 2016 slowly trickled out into theaters across the country. This past weekend, the film played in 169 theaters, bumping its overall take to just above $2 million. That already makes it the number two non-nature documentary of the year, just under Bully.
In 2016, the well-known conservative commentator examines Obama's past and his potential as a second-term President. As the official website puts it:
Immersed in exotic locales across four continents, best selling author Dinesh D’Souza races against time to find answers to Obama’s past and reveal where America will be in 2016. During this journey he discovers how Hope and Change became radically misunderstood, and identifies new flashpoints for hot wars in mankind’s greatest struggle. The journey moves quickly over the arc of the old colonial empires, into America’s empire of liberty, and we see the unfolding realignment of nations and the shape of the global future.
Overtly partisan documentaries aren't a new thing — activist cinema was particularly active in the '60s and '70s on a global scale — but recent years have seen the release of ideological attacks that have hit the big screen and made a splash unlike ever before. In some ways, they were spurred by the theatrical muckraking tactics of Moore, who hoped that Fahrenheit 9/11 would steer people away from voting for then-sitting President George W. Bush. Whether it fairly covers both sides of the issues is up for debate, but the fervor it packed in its agenda made it a gargantuan success. 2016 Obama's America isn't reaching that box office level (yet), but the film does successfully draw from the same well as Fahrenheit 9/11. Winning people on the other side of the line may not be the point — a pointed documentary makes more money than one presenting bipartisan politics.
2016 Obama's America is an even bigger surprise because of where it's finding success. The Hollywood Reporter reports that the film was the number three highest grossing picture at a New York City theater. (The top two? The Dark Knight Rises and Total Recall.) New York City is the number one American city to back Obama's campaign, so why the surge in an anti-Obama doc? Like the inverse of Fahrenheit 9/11, it's about playing directly to the heart of those who want to hear their thoughts echoed — a savvy business strategy. According to 2016 producer John Sullivan, the film's marketing campaign is aggressive in the specific places the audience may be found, with ads running on Fox News Channel, A&E, History and MSNBC. A similar approach was taken with two other recent conservative films: 2011's Sarah Palin documentary The Undefeated and Ben Stein's 2008 evolution debate film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The latter grossed a relatively big $7.7 million.
Partisan documentaries are fruitful business, and with politics raging more furiously than ever before thanks to social technology, the symbolic theatrical experiences will grow increasingly more prominent. Like everything in Hollywood, "documentary" is now in its own creative vs. business battle. Why be well-rounded when you can go for the throat and make a few million in the process? 2016 Obama's America is finding an audience and is on the road to being one of 2012's out-of-nowhere successes. Quality may not be a factor — the film has a pending score on Rotten Tomatoes based on three reviews — but there's no denying it's taking off and catching Hollywood's attention.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Rocky Mountain Pictures]