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D'Souza's Obama doc: An unlikely election bellwether

August 27, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Co-director Dinesh D'Souza is shown in a scene from "2016: Obama's America."
Co-director Dinesh D'Souza is shown in a scene from "2016: Obama's… (2016: Obama's America )

I haven't seen "2016: Obama's America," Dinesh D'Souza's exploration of the inner Barack Obama, but I can pretty confidently make this prediction: The movie's box-office totals will not be a bellwether for November's election.

That's not a knock on the film, which has drawn mixed reviews -- for example, The Times' Betsy Sharkey panned it, The Arizona Republic's Bill Goodykoontz saw a bit more filmmaking talent in its frames. It's just the reality that even a wildly successful movie draws only a fraction of the electorate to the multiplex. And there's no way to tell how many of those who pay to see a film will actually show up at the polls on Election Day.

A recent case in point: "Fahrenheit 9/11," filmmaker Michael Moore's incendiary (sorry!) take on why the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. The movie, which was released less than five months before the 2004 elections, aimed to invoke outrage about President George W. Bush and the drive to war. But despite its success -- an estimated $24 million on opening weekend, and close to $120 million over the course of its domestic run -- didn't reflect the broader electorate's feelings about Bush or his opponent, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

That's predictable, if you think about it. Moore's movie attracted the support of about 20 million people. Six times that many people voted in November 2004, and with 62 million of them backing Bush.

This past weekend, D'Souza's film expanded to more than 1,000 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, selling $6.5 million worth of tickets. Just for the sake of comparison, Moore's $24 million came from 868 screens. But "Fahrenheit 9/11" was buoyed by a marketing budget and critical support that D'Souza's film didn't have. The latter has been promoted mainly by conservative talk radio stations and some grass-roots marketing efforts.

The returns for "2016: Obama's America" made it the seventh most popular film in North America, one slot higher than Sony's bike-messenger thriller, "Premium Rush," despite playing on half as many screens. The results were far better than analysts expected for the film, considering the lack of promotion and the subject matter. In comparison to number of potential moviegoers, however, not that many people went to see the movie last weekend -- under a million -- or in the seven weeks since its release -- roughly 1.5 million. It's attracting not just a fraction of the voting public, but a fraction of those who are likely to vote for President Obama's presumptive Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Moore's films illustrate another point: Political films preach to the choir. Polls show that almost half of U.S. voters disapprove of Obama's performance in office, which means that D'Souza's choir is particularly large. From that standpoint, you could argue that "2016: Obama's America" is underperforming, suggesting that the weekend box-office results are actually a good sign for Obama. But that's just as much of a misreading, because as history shows, there are no tea leaves in this cup.

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey

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