NEW YORK: "2016: Obama's America" has been one of the most-discussed movies of the summer, with media coverage focusing on two things above all: the amount of money it has generated at the box office and the movie's anti-Obama message, especially controversial in an election year.
But conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza, who co-directed the movie and wrote "The Roots of Obama's Rage," the non-fiction book it's based on, told The Huffington Post that he didn't initially intend for it to be a big ticket-seller or a tool of political persuasion. He came up with the idea of making the movie trying to think of ways address critics of his book, who said it had failed to prove its central claim that Obama had been influenced by his father.
"I was thinking, 'Haven't you guys read Obama's book? He wrote practically 500 pages on this subject,'" D'Souza said. "And then I noticed that Obama had read his own book in audiobook. I began to listen to it, and I thought, 'It's all here in his own voice! If only I could take some of this stuff, critical points, and make a documentary, it would be very helpful for people.'"
D'Souza said he thought back to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which inspired heated debate when it was released on the eve of the 2004 presidential election.
"I realized that the conditions now are very similar. A controversial president, half the country on each side of the fence, anxiety about the American dream," he said. "So I thought, why not take a page out of Michael Moore's book and make a film -- although a very different kind of film, I hope."
An acquaintance put him in touch with producer Gerald Molan, who'd worked on "Schindler's List." Molan agreed that "The Roots of Obama's Rage" had the makings of a compelling movie. D'Souza raised $2.5 million from 25 friends and acquaintances -- "mostly from my neighborhood in California," he said -- and started work on the movie with co-director John Sullivan. They filmed around the world in January and February, then had a final cut ready by the end of May.
To minimize financial risk, they rolled out the movie slowly, opening on just one screen on July 13. Ticket sales were strong, so they expanded distribution -- first to four screens, then to six, 10, 61 and 169 in the following weeks. Last weekend, it was playing on 1,091 screens and had made $6.5 million -- more than any new movie that week.
Keith Simanton, managing editor of the online movie database IMDB, said that the movie's success was largely an effect of canny marketing and good timing. "It's had a groundswell around it. The platform release worked well -- and being in the middle of the Republican convention helps. They timed it well; if they'd pumped this out in July, we wouldn't be having this conversation, " he told The Huffington Post.
Critics said the movie's box-office prowess has been artificially inflated by large conservative and church groups. D'Souza acknowledged such groups have been a factor, but denied that he or Rocky Mountain, the movie's distributor, have played any part in mobilizing them.
"All of that is happening outside of our control; we're not behind it," D'Souza said.
Simanton predicted that "2016: Obama's America" would eventually gross $25 million to $28 million at the box office -- 10 times its reported budget and more than any other documentary released in 2012.
Still, it's not even close to the $222 million "Fahrenheit 9/11" made worldwide. Simanton noted that the 2004 documentary was Moore's fifth feature, so he was already a known quantity. He added that if D'Souza makes another movie -- which the writer said he would do -- it could do even better.
Still, if "Fahrenheit 9/11" couldn't swing the election Moore's way, there's little chance D'Souza's film will. Especially when the movie has been bashed by critics for alleged inaccuracies. But D'Souza said he would be fine with that. Tilting the election was never his goal, he said.
"This was not intended to be a 'Don't Vote For Obama' film, but rather to be a 'Discover The Real Obama' film," D'Souza said. "There's no question that I knew there would be intense interest in politics this year and so it made sense to drop the film at a time when Americans care more than usual about politics. But it's not specifically aimed at the election."
"In fact," he continued. "The film, as a film, will do better if Obama wins."