2016: Obama’s America opened on one screen in Houston. Then it went to four screens. There were lines outside the doors. Then the movie opened in Nashville, Anchorage, Kalispell (a town in Montana), Dallas . . . Eventually, it was playing on more than 2,000 screens across America.
This movie is the fourth-highest-grossing documentary of all time. The No. 1 such movie is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. No. 2 is March of the Penguins, and No. 3 is a Justin Bieber movie. 2016, as you see, is the second-highest-grossing political documentary. It is ahead of the other Michael Moore movies, plus An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore film.
2016 was created by Dinesh D’Souza, who based the film on two of his books: The Roots of Obama’s Rage, published two years ago, and Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream, published this year. According to D’Souza, the key to understanding President Obama is to be found in the president’s own book: Dreams from My Father, published in 1995, before the author started running for office. The father’s dreams were anti-colonialist, anti-American, and leftist. The son has now taken those dreams to the White House, fulfilling them.
That is D’Souza’s take, anyway. 2016: Obama’s America is “controversial,” to use a weak but handy word.
D’Souza has been well known since he was a college student, one of the brainy hellions at theDartmouth Review. This is the conservative newspaper on that campus. Once upon a time, at least one Dartmouth Review staffer was almost expelled from the college for “vexatious oral exchange” with a professor. “Vexatious oral exchange” was a byword on the right, for some years.
D’Souza had come from Bombay, where he was born and raised. Ignorant, hippie-dippie students were fascinated by his name, his homeland, his otherness. “Oh, dude, I love India!” they would say. “Ever been there?” D’Souza would ask. “No,” they would say. “What do you think you love about it?” he would continue. “The dowry? Arranged marriage? The caste system? Poverty? Hopelessness?”
The young immigrant embraced Americanism — in particular, Reaganism — with a vengeance. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1983, he went to Washington, eventually joining the Reagan White House. Over the past 25 years, he has authored a string of books, on political, cultural, and religious subjects. He is also president of The King’s College in New York.
He made 2016 with $2.5 million, contributed by 25 people. He borrowed $7.5 million, and then another $2 million, for publicity. The film has now grossed about $33 million. And it has appeared in the heated atmosphere of a presidential election. D’Souza says he learned this from Michael Moore — who dropped Fahrenheit 9/11 into the 2004 election. The candidate he was aiming at, President George W. Bush, won anyway.
As D’Souza explains, a standard Hollywood film has its premieres in New York and L.A. When the film goes national, its makers and backers hope for a big, big opening weekend. That’s the ballgame. 2016 was much different. D’Souza and his team started small, in conservative America. Then they “ramped up,” as D’Souza says. Before long, the movie was in New York and L.A., where it has done well. D’Souza makes this comment about Union Square in Manhattan: It’s “not exactly thick with Romney voters.” He has been surprised by the success of 2016 overall. The film has exceeded everyone’s expectations. D’Souza gives several reasons for this success.
First, there is a hunger for information about Obama. He is one of the most famous men in the world — president of the United States, after all — but strangely little known. The movie’s ad slogan is, “Love him, hate him: You don’t know him.” Second, the story is interesting — that is, Obama’s story. He is at the heart of the film. Third, that film is well made: no amateur effort. Fourth, conservative radio hosts were enthusiastic about the movie. Initially, Michael Berry in Houston was key. Then came such national figures as Rush Limbaugh, Mike Gallagher, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and Sean Hannity.
The fifth reason for the film’s success is the most important, says D’Souza: word of mouth. Not just the mouths of the radio hosts, important as they were, but the mouths of ordinary ticket-buyers, who told their friends about 2016, who then told their friends. This is “advertising money can’t buy,” as they say in the business (and all sorts of business).