Perhaps it’s karma. Where the George W. Bush years saw a seemingly endless skein of liberal films hitting theaters, it looks like conservatives might finally be getting their turn at the multiplexes.
This year has seen a spate of high-profile films that are either overtly conservative or at least conservative-friendly.
The most surprising and arguably telling hit so far is the anti-Obama documentary “2016: Obama’s America,” which presents the controversial theory that President Obama inherited his anti-Western absentee father’s political DNA and is governing the U.S. with the aim of scaling back its power and influence.
The film, which at its peak reached more than 2,000 screens, has earned more than several high-profile Michael Moore films, becoming the second-highest-grossing political documentary of all time. Such was the documentary’s impact that the Obama campaign even responded directly to the film, obviously concerned about its message.
But the recent spate of big-screen conservatism hasn’t been limited to documentaries and smaller releases. Last February saw the box-office success of “Act of Valor,” a highly patriotic and pro-military action film. Featuring a cast of real Navy SEALs, “Valor” was widely interpreted as an antidote to the string of high-profile anti-war films that proliferated in theaters during the later years of the Bush administration. “Valor” grossed more than $80 million on a production budget of $12 million, making for a sweet profit.
A bigger hit, by an order of magnitude, is “The Dark Knight Rises,” the third installment in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Viewed by many on the right and the left as kind of an allegorical rebuttal to the anti-capitalist extremism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the film has grossed more than $1 billion and counting, making it the seventh highest-grossing film of all time worldwide.
A film sure to resonate with conservative audiences like few others in recent memory is “Won’t Back Down,” opening Friday, which is being likened to a “Norma Rae” for the school-choice movement. Although it stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, a confirmed liberal activist, the film, which was screened at the Republican and Democratic conventions, has been criticized as an attack on teachers unions, a bete noire of conservatives. (“Waiting for Superman,” a 2010 documentary from the director of the Al Gore-starring “An Inconvenient Truth,” also took a conservative position on the subject.)
Nov. 21 will see the release of “Red Dawn,” a remake of the 1984 John Milius film about a home-grown guerrilla insurgency against invading communist armies. That film has become an under-the-radar cult favorite among conservatives for its defiant anti-communist and anti-gun-control messages. Although the remake, too, tells the story of resistance to invading communists, it has suffered some credibility damage on the right after the studio ordered the villains changed from Chinese to North Korean out of concern for the film’s Chinese box-office prospects.
Whether the appeal of these mainstream releases crosses over to the general public or is confined to conservative circles remains to be seen, though filmmakers are betting on solid turnouts.
Conservatives have long complained that Hollywood is an industry dominated by a left that misunderstands and attacks conservative values and institutions — when it doesn’t ignore them altogether. But many are now wondering if the commercial breakthroughs of “2016” and “Act of Valor,” along with the sleeper-hit potential of “Won’t Back Down,” signals the start of more wide releases for conservative-friendly fare.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift as far as more conservative films are getting made,” says John Nolte, editor of Big Hollywood, a conservative culture website. “I think that what’s happening is that people who aren’t left-wing now know that they aren’t alone in Hollywood. You have the success of ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ ‘300’ and the Batman films.
“You have producers, directors and screenwriters who might not even be conservative, but they’re not liberal or ideological, so they’re willing to make films that are more conservative just in the fact that they have more traditional themes. You see that opening up, and people aren’t afraid to make those films like they were before.”
Other industry observers remain skeptical. “I think it’s read as a one-off occurrence,” said Keith Simanton, managing editor of the Internet Movie Database, in reference to the box-office success of “2016.”
“After the success of ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ it was predicted that there would be a slew of religious films. That never happened,” he said.
Though most overtly conservative films are financed and distributed outside of the system that supplies most of America’s multiplexes, independent works such as the Christian-themed film “Last Ounce of Courage” are becoming more common. Without studio-sized advertising campaigns, these films often rely on word of mouth and screenings at events to build buzz.
Perhaps no film targeted at the right-leaning market commanded as much attention and anticipation as last year’s “Atlas Shrugged: Part I,” an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s perennially best-selling fictional ode to the glories of individual achievement. Despite name recognition and a ready-made fan base of libertarian faithful, the film underperformed at the box office. Undeterred, the filmmakers went ahead with production of “Atlas Shrugged: Part II,” which opens Oct. 12.
Harmon Kaslow, a producer of “Atlas Shrugged: Part II,” readily admits the release date close to the election is by design, and thinks that the film is primed to bring conservatives and libertarians into the theater.
“The population that tends to support this type of film has been disenfranchised by what’s available,” Mr. Kaslow said. “We aim to reacquaint them with the theater.”
Still, the results could be muddied by a particularly political year. “If ‘2016’ had been released in June, we likely wouldn’t be hearing much about it,” said Mr. Simanton, adding that Michael Moore’s hit 2004 anti-Bush documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” “was very successful in its time, but Moore’s later films didn’t do nearly as well.”
Mr. Simanton thinks that, ultimately, studios will continue to seek films with broad-based appeal transcending the partisan divide. “Studios are about profits,” Mr. Simanton said. “They don’t stand to gain from segmenting their audiences into groups.”
“I don’t think exhibitors took us as seriously as they should have for ‘Part I,’” Mr. Kaslow said. “I think now that ‘2016’ has had all this success, it has only instilled greater confidence in exhibitors about our potential to succeed at the box office.”