In assessing the box office performance of new releases, Hollywood bean counters have long considered both foreign and domestic grosses. But they may soon have to add a third category: Texas.
While conservative-themed documentaries and faith-based dramas often launch in regions that are sympathetic to those principles, some distributors are finding success in Texas, and using the state as a springboard. In the case of this summer’s sleeper hit, the right-leaning documentary 2016: Obama’s America, the film’s distributor executed a careful marketing plan that focused initially on the Houston market.
The documentary launched there in one theater in mid-July and grossed just shy of $32,000 in its opening weekend. It has since expanded to more than 2,000 screens nationwide, earning roughly $30 million, and is on track to become one of the five highest-grossing documentaries of all time. Last week, the Obama administration released a statement denouncing the film, a bit of publicity that could drive even more box office sales.
“We needed to find a place where we could get the most attention,” said Randy Slaughter, president of Rocky Mountain Pictures, which is distributing 2016: Obama’s America. “You hunt where the ducks are. You don’t go hunting in a place that doesn’t have ducks.”
The strategy of slowly building buzz for an independent film is hardly novel — just look at the 2011 Best Picture winner The King’s Speech, which played for four weeks on fewer than fifty screens before expanding. (It eventually grossed more than $130 million domestically.) In the last decade, several titles targeted at conservative and/or religious viewers have found a secular embrace, from blockbusters like The Passion of the Christ (2004) to modest hits like Woman Thou Art Loosed (2004).
But most indie success stories start in New York and Los Angeles, not the middle of the country. According to both Slaughter and John Sullivan, the film’s executive producer, there were a number of compelling reasons to open the film in Houston, where it began its run on July 13 at the Edwards Houston Marq’E, which is part of the Regal chain.
First, they believed there would be a large audience in Houston that would agree with the politics of the film, which was co-directed by Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative pundit who argues that the president’s upbringing, relationships and political actions portend a grim future for America. Second, Houston is a top ten media market, where Slaughter and Sullivan felt the film would generate considerable news media coverage. (Michael Berry, a syndicated conservative radio talk show host based in the city, was an early champion of the film.)
Perhaps most critically, Houston has theaters from each of the three largest theater chains—Regal, AMC and Cinemark—which they hoped would create a speedy conduit for national expansion.
In its second weekend, 2016: Obama’s America added a few more theaters in Houston. It the following weeks, it made its way to Dallas, Nashville, Anchorage and Kalispell, Montana. Since its wide release in late August, Sullivan said, it has performed surprisingly well in traditionally liberal enclaves like New York City and Los Angeles. Its two highest grossing theaters, however, have been in Texas: the Edwards in Houston and the Palladium in San Antonio.
“Our whole marketing approach was a little bit counterintuitive to what a studio would do,” Sullivan said.
The team behind 2016: Obama’s America isn’t the only one to recognize the significance of the Texas market. Last year, the distributors of the documentary Sarah Palin: The Undefeated hosted a private screening in Grapevine for community leaders, two weeks before the movie’s release. The film failed to catch (its total grosses were just over $100,000), but it earned a burst of national news media attention when one of its public screenings at the AMC Grapevine Mills sold out.
Meanwhile, Provident Films, the company behind 2011’s breakout Christian drama, Courageous, and a number of other faith-based movies like October Baby, and Fireproof, embarks upon extensive marketing efforts in the state for each of its releases, showing their films in advance to ministry and church leaders, and hosting word-of-mouth screenings in Tyler, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Waco. According to Kris Fuhr, Vice President of Theatrical Marketing, the tenor of press coverage for their films has been favorable in Texas.
“What is intriguing and appealing in Odessa seems less so in New York and Los Angeles,” Fuhr said in an email.
Whether the model established by 2016: Obama’s America will be followed by similar films remains to be seen. This weekend, Rocky Mountain Pictures is releasing Last Ounce of Courage, a drama about the surviving son and father of a fallen war hero, but is trying a more traditional launch in more than 1,300 theaters. In November, Magnet Releasing, a company owned by Dallas-based businessman Mark Cuban, will release the late Andrew Breitbart’s Occupy Unmasked, a documentary about the Occupy movement; it will launch theatrically in only a handful of markets, including Dallas, Orange County, California, and Denver.
At least one observer, though, hopes that conservative- and faith-based filmmakers are paying attention. Dr. Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, which seeks to encourage more values-focused entertainment, noted that 2016: Obama’s America harked back to an old-school way of releasing films before Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality took grip: Start in a receptive region, find success and then take it to another.
“It’s a smart way to market it if you don’t have a lot of money,” he said.