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Audience growing for '2016: Obama's America'

Conservative author Dinesh D'Souza's documentary on the president far exceeded expectations in its first week in wide release, grossing $6.2 million.

August 26, 2012|By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times
  • Co-director Dinesh D'Souza, left, interviews George Obama in Nairobi, Kenya.
Co-director Dinesh D'Souza, left, interviews George Obama in Nairobi,… ("2016: Obama's America",…)

Dinesh D'Souza felt that President Obama had been telling his story to Americans for years. The conservative author wanted to give them a different version.

So he worked on a documentary, "2016: Obama's America," that put the president in a more critical light. And apparently, there's an audience that agrees with D'Souza's vision.

In its first week in wider distribution, the documentary grossed an estimated $6.2 million, far exceeding industry expectations, according to independent distributor Rocky Mountain Pictures. That was virtually the same amount as the major studio action film "Premium Rush" collected — and "Obama's America" was playing in roughly 1,100 fewer theaters.

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"I realized Obama was telling his own story in his own voice and thought it would be interesting to use his voice in a documentary where it would be indisputable to people that this was Obama's own narrative," said D'Souza, who wrote and directed the film with John Sullivan.

The film draws heavily from D'Souza's own life, as he describes how coming to study in America from his native India helped to shape his political ideology. Throughout the 90-minute film, he often addresses the camera face-forward, pointing out the similarities between his upbringing and Obama's. Many of the author's arguments about Obama's support of anti-colonialism are drawn from D'Souza's controversial book "The Roots of Obama's Rage," and the movie frequently uses dramatic reenactments featuring unknown actors to depict past events.

Heading into the weekend, pre-release audience surveys suggested "Obama's America" would gross about $4 million — but by midday Friday, ticket sales were so brisk that estimates were lifted to $6 million. The movie debuted seven weeks ago in Houston and had raked in $2.4 million as it expanded from 169 theaters to 1,091 locations this weekend. In total, the film has sold $9.1-million worth of tickets.

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"I've always felt that there is a real hunger for Obama out there and a sense that there's something about him that escaped full understanding," D'Souza said of the film's success. "The large crowd for the film shows that there's more interest than usual in politics and a real political anxiety in the country about the future of the American dream."

Last year, D'Souza's "Roots" was publicly denounced by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and Vice President Joe Biden, among other Obama supporters. The writer, also president of King's College in New York City, said he began formulating an idea for his first documentary when he heard the audio version of Obama's autobiography.

The author was also hopeful that given the right timing, the film — which he co-directed — might replicate the success of Michael Moore's documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11." That film, released before the 2004 election, took a critical look at then-President George W. Bush and ultimately went on to gross an unprecedented $222 million worldwide.

D'Souza was eventually able to find 25 donors familiar with his books who were willing to finance the film's $2.5-million budget.

To promote the movie's wide release this weekend, the filmmakers employed a grass-roots marketing strategy. Mark Joseph, a film producer who helped lead the promotional campaign, had a team begin to call conservative groups to make them aware of "Obama's America" starting in the spring. Joseph said he had experienced some pushback from faith-based groups, finding "a little less enthusiasm on the faith side because of nonprofit status versus political status."

The movie has also been the topic of conversation on numerous talk radio programs, and D'Souza has made appearances on CNN and Fox — though he said he was turned down by HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher." It appears that stoking the conservative fan base worked well, because the documentary performed best over the weekend in red state bastions such as Baton Rouge, La., and Wichita, Kan.

D'Souza said he was hopeful the film would expand to around 100 additional theaters next weekend. He added that he had yet to hear from the Obama camp, but he believed it was "probably quite worried about the film given that they were in major hysteria when my book came out."

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amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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