‘2016: Obama’s America’ A Surprise Box-Office Hit -- Could It Sway The Election?

on August 28 2012 5:15 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday, commented for the first time on the scandal surrounding the Secret Service saying that he will wait for the full investigation before passing final judgment. Reuters

The Obama-bashing documentary based on Dinesh D'Souza's best-selling book "The Roots of Obama's Rage" was all the rage itself at the box office this weekend, but could it actually have implications that stretch into the voting booth this November?

The film, "2016: Obama's America," purports to show what the world will look like if President Barack Obama wins a second term and carries out what the Indian-born, Dartmouth-educated writer/fabulist claims is a rabid anti-colonialist agenda. Despite its intentionally polarizing subject matter, the movie has been doing a brisk business in select cities, including left-leaning New York.

This weekend, it opened wider, playing on more than a thousand screens, and the box-office tallies are surpassing all expectations. The movie was the seventh highest-grossing film this weekend, according to Box Office Mojo, with the highest per-screen average of any movie in the country. Producers are gearing up for an even wider release next weekend, as the movie expands to 1,800 screens just in time to catch the vibe from the closing of the Republican National Convention.

But before we assume that D'Souza's tale of Obama rage is sparking a nationwide movement to unseat the president, keep in mind that, based on its per-screen average, the movie was only seen by about 800,000 people this weekend. That's less than one third of one percent of the population. With the country divided pretty evenly down party lines, there are enough far-right radicals to keep this movie hopping all the way through November, with no guarantee that anyone who pays for a ticket would have voted for Obama in the first place.

The truth is -- if history is any indication -- political documentaries play almost exclusively to their own base. When Michael Moore released the anti-Bush doc "Fahrenheit 9/11" at the heat of the 2004 election season, journalists and pundits wondered for months if the movie's success would translate into a boost for Democratic hopeful John Kerry. And they had good reason to. Within weeks, the film had already passed the $100 million mark at the box office, and it remains the most successful political documentary of all time. Nevertheless, George W. Bush landed a decisive victory that November, winning 31 states and a popular vote of 62 million over Kerry's 59 million. That's because, as one professor predicted in a USA Today article, all "Fahrenheit 9/11" managed to do was "turn Bush-haters into bigger Bush-haters."

And judging from reactions to "Obama's America," the same will hold true this year. A Twitter search with the hashtag #2016 draws comments that fall basically into two categories: conservatives praising the movie and liberals bashing it. Mainstream critics, at least the ones who have seen it, have largely panned it.  And while that fact may draw the typical whining about liberal-media bias, it only bolsters the point that the movie is not changing anyone's mind.

As the film's director, John Sullivan, pointed out to the Hollywood Reporter last week, "Obama's America" owes a big part of its success to heavy advertising on talk radio and Fox News. If producers are really looking to turn a few Democrats around, they might want to rethink that strategy.