Picture if you will, Karl Rove and Karen Hughes sitting around the offices of Bush-Cheney 2004, talking strategy and shooting the breeze. Suddenly the phone rings. “Karl,” a young aide says excitedly. “I’ve got bad news for you. The Democrats have a new weapon: independent documentary films!”
It sounds like an early Woody Allen set piece, doesn’t it?—“Noooo, not the independent documentary!” But in a presidential election year when the Internet has already broken most of the traditional campaign strategy rules, the humble independent documentary, with its black-and-white verisimilitude and low-budget production values may well be the tipping point in this year’s presidential election.
With a long list of politically charged films moving from academic journals to the front page of USA Today and from art houses to suburban multiplexes, documentaries are poised to be a major player in the upcoming election. Could success in this small corner of the entertainment industry be the downfall of the president?
Most notably, of course, is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which takes an unsubtle look at the relationship between the Bush political dynasty and the Saudi royal family. Other films attack corporate institutions allied with the Bush administration—among them are Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s literally nauseating look at the fast food business; The Corporation, a scathing look at familiar multinational companies released in June; and The Yes Men, released August, in which actors pose as corporate bigwigs at WTO conventions attempting to push the limits of what people will do in the name of global profits (with a result that would be a very funny dark comedy, if only it hadn’t actually happened.)
Then there are films like Control Room, released in May, which started as a movie about Al Jazeera and turned into a stark look at the American military’s Central Command and its propaganda machine. Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, released late in 2003, took personal interviews from US military and intelligence sources highlighting the administration’s use of questionable information to foster American support of the invasion. While Uncovered was unconventionally distributed by a variety of left-leaning .orgs and The Nation, it garnered renewed attention when it screened at Cannes this year. A subsequent DVD release and the quick sale of 100,000 copies led to a distribution deal for a nationwide theatrical release in late summer.
Michael Moore aside, it isn’t clear that all these filmmakers have partisan agendas. The thirty-year-old director of Control Room, Jehane Noujaim, said in an article for The New York Times that she “doesn’t have strong political views.” And as anyone who’s ever made a film knows, most of these recently completed films had to have been started over two years ago, when Bush’s poll numbers were soaring and Democratic prospects were abysmal.
Political, left-leaning documentaries are not a new or recent phenomenon. What is new, though, is that documentaries are being seen by significant numbers of people, even by national election standards. Fahrenheit 9/11 was screened in over 2,000 theaters and broke the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, shattering all previous records for documentary box office sales by a factor of 5. With Control Room landing an international distribution deal, and Super Size Me moving into the number four all-time box office sales spot for a documentary, the potential to influence public opinion has grown tremendously.
It could be argued that the rise of the documentary film as a tool to influence voters started with the 2002 release of Moore’s Bowling for Columbine which earned over $20 million in ticket sales. Traditionally, documentaries are considered huge successes if they even reach $1 million at the box office. Bowling for Columbine dwarfed the reigning documentary heavyweight, Madonna’s 1991 quasi-music video Truth or Dare, which earned $15 million. Other widely seen documentaries such as Hoop Dreams (1994) and Moore’s Roger and Me (1989) did not even break $8 million.
So what exactly is going on? Many have argued that this is a continued outgrowth of American audiences’ growing obsession with reality programming. Others think that this segment of the film industry has simply benefited from the marketing genius of Michael Moore, who is now being credited with timing his outrage towards Disney for denying distribution of Fahrenheit 9/11 to maximize coverage before Cannes. While these might explain the growth in documentary sales in general and the success of this one film, it does not explain the overall growth in market value of political documentaries.
Maybe it has to do with the public’s growing mistrust of the media. A recent Pew Poll shows a precipitous decline in the trust of broadcast and print media among people across the ideological spectrum. The only noted exception is an increase in trust among Republicans in the news delivered by the “fair and balanced” Fox network. With growing cynicism around the traditional sources of news, and even a polarization towards news media that provide ideologically slanted reporting, is it any wonder people would look to documentary films sold on the basis that they explore topics the media won’t touch?
This is obviously good news for documentary filmmakers who have struggled for years to gain financial reward for labors of love. But what kind of news is this on the political front? Ironically, it may be capitalism that allows these documentaries to play a real role in the upcoming election. As can be seen most blatantly in the case of Uncovered, distributors follow economic success. The trend for political documentaries to produce a profit at the box office means that conventional Hollywood buyers and cinema chains will now give new films of this genre a real look and might even take a calculated risk on a potential gain, whereas in past years such films would be rejected out of hand.
And that is where this year is going to get interesting. While the Bush campaign is investing record amounts of money into television ads in battleground states (that many experts believe will hit a saturation point and have diminishing returns), George Butler, longtime Kerry friend and famous for the film Pumping Iron (1977), that features another Austrian-accented political headliner, is set to release a documentary this fall looking at the life of the Democratic nominee. Tour of Duty will be released just as the campaign moves into the final weeks of the election. Further, Fahrenheit 9/11 was released on DVD in September, and given the amount of attention that will be focused on the intensely bitter campaign slated for this fall, do you think distributors, film houses or even Blockbuster Video will ignore the market trends and potential profits? Not very likely. The Bush administration may end up under attack by the same free market forces it likes to praise.
There might also be a lesson to be learned from the last presidential race. Few know that Spike Jonze made a documentary about Al Gore (introduced as a “Gore family film”) that was available for distribution in time for the 2000 election. Imagine if it had been distributed widely and a few thousand undecided people had seen it and the humanized Gore it portrayed. Might we have had a different outcome? While many of us now play Monday morning quarterback with this and other elements of the Gore campaign, the reality is that the impact would not have been as strong. Without a developed market for the political documentary, it might have simply preached to the converted, largely in art houses and other independent film venues that, for the most part, are in solidly “blue” states.
This year, however, Karl Rove and company should be plenty scared. The political documentary is hot, audiences are primed, and producers are hungry for more financial gain. If even a few of those sought after swing voters strolling past shopping-mall theaters in the heartland wander into Tour of Duty, or rent a DVD of Fahrenheit 9/11, in this, the tightest election year in decades, it may be just enough to change the leadership of the world’s only superpower.
And maybe, just maybe, documentary filmmakers, instead of bankers and lawyers, will soon be found camping out in the Lincoln bedroom.