Here's my latest story in the print version of Variety, on newsstands Monday, about an emerging industry of filmmakers from the right.
Before the opening credits, before any shots of Alaska, before we even hear narration from Sarah Palin herself, Stephen K. Bannon's reverential documentary "The Undefeated" features byte-sized clips of stars like Rosie O'Donnell, Matt Damon and David Letterman.
One after another they are seen and heard bashing her, to the point where the words and voices become a nameless, expletive-filled tirade. Interlaced is a passage from Sermon on the Mount: "Every good tree bringeth forth good truth; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil truth; by their fruits ye shall know them."
The provocative opener is fitting -- not just because "The Undefeated" uses Hollywood to make its point, but that it reflects conservative efforts to tap into the industry's powers of persuasion.
With varying degrees of success, a genre of unabashedly conservative documentaries has emerged in the past five years or so, inspired by Michael Moore and other filmmakers from the left who have been among the most savvy in making an impact.
Most of these projects from the right sell on the Internet, video-on-demand or via streaming, but "The Undefeated" represents a test of just how far a conservative documentary can go at the multiplex. The movie will roll out in at least 10 cities in AMC Theaters starting July 15.
The difference with "The Undefeated" is that it is so tied to speculation over Palin's presidential prospects -- which may make it a tougher sell if she decides not to run. It may be the closest thing yet to a film version of Palin's memoir "Going Rogue," and although she did not participate in making it, she has given it her blessing and allowed Bannon to use her voice from the "Rogue" audiobook.
Plans are to premiere later this month in Iowa, the first state to vote in nomination season. And if she does get in the race, Bannon even sees the movie as resetting the way that candidates roll out their campaigns, with a documentary format taking the place of the traditional tactic of publishing a book.
"If a film works, it resonates for a long time," Bannon says. "I think we have only started to scratch the surface on films about issues and politics."
Already the film has created enough of a buzz to trigger a response from the left. Brave New Films' Robert Greenwald, a progressive filmmaker, has his doubts that the movie is anything more than a glorified PSA. In fact, he's launched a campaign to collect reminders of the parts of Palin's story that "The Undefeated" does not dwell upon.
Bannon sees a largely untapped market for docus aimed at conservatives, with the potential to draw as loyal and fervent a following as conservative authors, AM radio and Fox News. "The Undefeated" cost about $1 million to make and is being financed by Victory Film Group and distributed by ARC Entertainment. Bannon wrote and directed the project, which is produced by Glenn Bracken Evans and Dan Fleuette.
A surface warfare officer in the Navy and former Goldman Sachs investment banker and film financier, Bannon shifted gears in 2004, when he took a plunge into directing with "In the Face of Evil: Reagan's War in Word and Deed," which proved successful enough to sustain a series of more docs at the same time he served as chairman of Genius Products. He still has a dealmaker's zeal, tapping political media to build buzz for "The Undefeated," having held a series of select screenings over the past few weeks and previewed the pic on "Hannity."
"People have very strong political beliefs, but at the end of the day, I haven't met a bigger set of capitalists than I have met in this town. It is one of the most Darwinian of environments that I have ever seen," he says.
The problem is that there just hasn't been the number of talent to match those on the left. "The simple, brutal reality is the quality is not there," he says.
"It doesn't behoove us to play into the narrative that it is the big bad liberals that are keeping us from making our movies," he adds.
He calls his style "kinetic," heavy in quick cuts and imagery and, at certain points, to "almost overwhelm an audience" in the density of the material.
Conservative docs have always been produced, but their style has tended to take a more traditional approach.
What changed that was Moore's success in making projects unabashed in their point of view -- most notably the runaway success of "Fahrenheit 9/11," an indictment on President George W. Bush and still the most successful documentary of all time. That success in turn triggered a wave of conservative counterweights.
The man who was the first to respond was not from Hollywood but D.C.'s partisan battles: David Bossie, a well-known Washington political activist who ran the conservative advocacy org Citizens United.
Bossie says he saw people "blown away" by the momentum of "Fahrenheit" and how it "created this kind of pop culture movement." But he also noticed the film's advertising campaign was having an impact. "The TV ads were the best thing, better than anything John Kerry produced," he says.
He contacted actor Ron Silver, who in turn told him to get in touch with writer-director Lionel Chetwynd. Along with Kevin Knoblock, Chetwynd and Ted Steinberg, they were able to rush into production a response to "Fahrenheit," called "Celsius 41.11," that debuted in the waning weeks of the presidential campaign. (The title refers to the temperature when the brain begins to die.)
Box office results were minute compared with the "Fahrenheit" haul, but the experience was just the start of Bossie's production company, Citizens United Prods. So far, the company has produced 18 titles, ranging from themes about the national debt to conservative women to illegal immigration, usually trumpeting conservative causes, and typically costing in the range of $750,000 to produce. Their most successful movie, "Rediscovering God in America," produced in 2008 with Newt and Callista Gingrich as narrators, has sold 300,000 to 400,000 units, Bossie says, adding that their goal with every project is to sell at least 50,000 units in the first 12 to 18 months of release. In the works is a documentary about President Obama, set to debut in the spring, as well as projects with Andrew Breitbart, Mike Huckabee and even a children's movie.
Bossie's biggest impact, however, was with "Hillary, the Movie," a scathing look at Hillary Clinton that debuted at the start of the 2008 presidential race. The purpose wasn't so much to shake up the race as it was to challenge campaign finance laws. After federal election officials dismissed his charge that "Fahrenheit" and its promotion ran afoul of campaign finance law, Bossie used "Hillary" to further push the envelope. Officials deemed "Hillary" promotional ads as electioneering, and Bossie's First Amendment challenge to that indictment resulted in the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 decision that opened the door to independent corporate expenditures advocating for or against candidates.
Citizens United is set up as a nonprofit, and Bossie depends on contributions to make his projects, and on the Internet and an email list to drive sales.
Bossie is more reluctant to try a theatrical release. He's mindful of an example from last year, RG Entertainment's "I Want Your Money," aimed at tapping in to Tea Party excitement. It debuted at 537 screens in October, and despite heavy promotion, grossed just over $400,000 at the box office. Mark Borde, president of Freestyle Releasing, which distributed the pic, says that the problem was that many of the activists believed to flock to theaters were otherwise engaged in political campaigns.
Says Bossie: "It is a risk -- a big risk. If no one comes on the first weekend, you are out of theaters anyway. Then you have reporters talking about the demise of the film, and that affects your DVDs."
"I just think that when you see these types of things happen, distributors get very gun shy and don't think a conservative audience will turn up for a film when they think they will see it on DVD and video on demand."
Bossie is investing attention to promote "Fire From the Heartland," a project about conservative women produced last year and directed and written by Bannon. The reason? It features Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who is coming off a standout performance at the recent Republican debate.
"All things being equal, I am jealous of Steve. I would love to have a theatrical release that is big and substantive," Bossie says. "He is courageous for doing it."
Bannon says he has "deals on the table" that will put him in the black on the pic.
Critics may be sniping that "The Undefeated" is propaganda, but Bannon hopes that the project resonates, particularly with women, in its approach to Palin as a working mom up against the odds. The first hour, in fact, is almost completely devoted to her taking office in Alaska and working with Democrats to break Big Oil's choke-hold on the state. And while the attacks on liberal elites and Obama are there, you get the greater sense that it's Palin up against the Republican establishment.
He's bullish on it doing well -- and that it will be a breakthrough for the conservative doc. "The real stuff is more interesting than the written," he says. "I think it is a great time to be a nonfiction filmmaker, and I think we are only at the top of the first inning."