The marketers behind 2016: Obama’s America  knew the ultra-conservative documentary would ignite a firestorm of criticism—and embraced it wholeheartedly.
The unorthodox strategy helped to draw a whopping $33 million at the box office, making the Barack Obama attack film the second highest-grossing political documentary of all time after Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, despite having virtually no marketing budget.
Filmmaker and right-wing author Dinesh D’Souza, whose best-seller The Roots of Obama’s Rage the movie is based on, knew he’d take some body blows by appearing on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher , for instance. But his contentious chat with the irascible host scored nearly 1.4 million viewers, the cable show’s best ratings in eight years, as the documentary wended its way from a single theater in Texas to 2,100 screens around the country.
“We knew that Dinesh and the film would be under a lot of scrutiny, but him going toe-to-toe with Bill Maher  made for good TV,” said Mark Joseph, a producer and marketing veteran who helped spearhead the campaign. “And it helped us cross over into the mainstream.”
As for broad-based exposure, Obama’s own camp provided exactly that on the presidential website when it called the film “the worst kind of smear journalism.” The marketers used the criticism to further promote the flick.
2016’s campaign spent only a reported $6 million on media, mostly ads on conservative talk radio and national TV news programs. For wider reach, commercials also ran on History and TNT.
The film, with supportive tweets from Donald Trump, Jack Welch and Rupert Murdoch, did well with older folks and Republicans in the heartland. It also scored big grosses in liberal stomping grounds like Austin, Texas, and New York.
Peter Sealey, former marketing chief at Coca-Cola and Columbia Pictures, said he sees 2016 as a positioning and timing success. “There’s an audience hungry for this material, and nobody gives it to them,” said Sealey, now a marketing professor at Claremont Graduate University. “The passionately conservative responded, and so did some curiosity seekers.”
There’s another chance for 2016’s backers to scoop up more cash: the film goes to video on demand and DVD on Oct. 16.