It’s been four years since John McCain tried to tarnish President Obama by suggesting that the candidate was a celebrity–as if all famous politicians aren’t–rather than a man of substance. The tactic didn’t work. If anything, the first Obama term in office was evidence that we were ready for a president who was a celebrity, whose wife’s fashion choices were scrutinized and imitated, whose pop culture tastes made headlines and drove viewership, and whose administration became the subject of pop culture itself, from Leslie Knope’s Joe Biden obsession on Parks and Recreation, to Comedy Central’s sketch show Key & Peele, which built its audience in part on the strength of Jordan Peele’s Obama impersonation and its Anger Translator sketch. And now that the 2012 election is over, it’s clear that the dynamic worked in the opposite direction. Campaigners on both sides used these three entertainment industry tactics during the election. And I’d predict that we see more of them in the future:
1. Campaign movies: In 2008, the Obama campaign aired a thirty-minute primetime special in support of his candidacy. This election featured movies even more prominently. There was the so-called “King of Bain” documentary, When Mitt Romney Came To Town, which was produced and distributed by a Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich’s candidacy:
In the general election, 2016: Obama’s America, a so-called documentary by conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza about Obama’s supposed radicalism, made $33 million at the domestic box office. Dreams From My Real Father, a hilariously paranoid attempt to prove that President Obama’s real father was a Communist and deeply terrible beat poet named Frank Marshall Davis who purportedly seduced Stanley Ann Dunham, was mailed to voters in swing states.
Mainstream movies that tried to capture the spirit of the campaign had more mixed success. Butter, an attempt to satirize both Midwestern butter-carving, and Michele Bachmann, ended up doing only $73,000 in domestic box office in a very limited run: condescension and Bachmann’s fading political star proved not to be a winning combination. Jay Roach’s The Campaign, the Will Ferrell-Zach Galifianakis vehicle about a suddenly-competitive House race, did better, taking in $86 million. The combination of Ferrell’s star power and a more generalized indictment of political dishonesty was probably always going to be a more potent bipartisan draw. In the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see mainstream movie studios starting to produce or acquire documentaries about the candidates themselves. 2016 is the kind of thing that might be an embarrassment, but it demonstrated that there’s real money out there in catering to politically-engaged audiences for the studio that wants to reach out and grab it.