Editor's note: This is part two in a two-part series. Part one is available here.
KW: I think your film may actually have a unique distinction of being the most successful film to ever get an “F” from Entertainment Weekly. Do you think that their critic even watched the film or some of these critics?
JS: No. I don’t think they did. They came in with their own pre-conceived bias on where they’re going to go. I don’t think that then even engaged the arguments of the film. I’ve been in Hollywood for a long time and it’s very much that little triangle of that area of the world and that’s kind of it. I don’t think they engaged. And that is what I always find interesting… like thatcReviewer… actually called the film “racist.”
KW: Owen Glieberman [of Entertainment Weekly]?
JS: Yes, I think he’s the one. Gerald Molen responded to that and it’s hard when someone like Dinesh, who is an Indian. How do you throw that label around? It demonstrated to me the shallowness of the reviewer, in the fact that they’d so throw that around so quickly. [T]his is kind of their territory of where they just kind of p*ss on it and it didn’t work. People were throwing that off and we actually addressed that early in the film. That was something that Dinesh wanted to address right away [in the film].
KW: You have to. For the audience’s sake.
JS: Yes. [Dinesh] says, “Look. I’ll hold up my hand, Reverend Jackson” after he is debating Reverend Jackson. “We are the same. Nobody could tell us [apart] just by our hands. And so, we’re both in that Brown category. We just see the world differently.”
KW: With documentaries, many filmmakers struggle at times with deciding if a scene or part of a scene is propaganda or advocacy or legitimately should be part of a film. What was your process of working it out for yourself in 2016? Making sure that this is a documentary, that we’re telling a story. We’re not advocating, we’re not making propaganda. Because every filmmaker is different. Michael Moore has his things, but we all have to make decisions in the editing room.
JS: I think part of it comes down to the fact that I don’t believe that there is any sort of objective viewpoint. I think everybody brings a bias and a perspective. I think the more you recognize that and are honest with the audience, it goes a long way for that. And I think that’s what we did. There’s no hiding that Dinesh D’Souza is a conservative. He’s been writing books and he has a certain perspective. When you write a book called, Illiberal Education. It has a perspective, so I think for me, it was coming in and balancing that. How do we tell that on an emotional space to work with people on that on a film level… because it is an art. But, getting to the fact of [is] this propaganda or is this documenting facts? We double-checked everything. We verified it, made sure that every claim that we were making… we could back up and in fact, the President came out and attacked the film. This was amazing to us. That he would even come to this. From BarackObama.com, they attacked the film. And I’m sitting there and I was the first to kind of pick this up. I’m like, “Whoa!” And I kind of responded back to our team, like, “Hey, they’ve just come after us.”
They [the White House] said, “well, the President thinks that America is exceptional. And he stated that.” I thought, “please don’t tell me that he’s stating that like when he talked about Great Britain and Greece.” And I clicked on the link they provided and he’s talking about Britain and Greece. And Dinesh’s point was (about Obama), “If everyone is exceptional, then no one‘s exceptional. That’s the whole point of this.” So, they picked these really random things to kind of pick on. And we responded point-by-point. We said (that) we’re fact-checking the President on fact-checking us. There was another reporter, [from] the AP who tried to do a fact-check… again, she was wrong on all of her things. But, I think that this demonstrated the bias on this. And this was something that Andrew Breitbart, this was his whole thing… saying, “Look. We know who you are, we know your game and we’re not going to play it. And we’re actually smarter than you.” That was the one thing on 2016, it was not only the film, but the responses… and we were expecting that.
KW: As we move on from the election, your film is still getting heavy rotation... particularly on VOD. What do you expect the long-term implications will be from the film? Not from a political perspective, but from an industry perspective?
JS: I think from the industry perspective, I think it opened some eyes. Hollywood… I’ll be speaking later today on the Hollywood Panel [at CPAC] one of my points is, people need to understand the currency of Hollywood. The currency of Hollywood is actually not making money first. It’s about, “What party did I get invited to? What film did I “greenlight,” that I can tell my friends at the cocktail party about?” Those types of things. Then, money comes second actually. It’s more about power and prestige first… and then [money]. But I think on this, they kind of opened their eyes. There is a market out there. And 2016 took them by [surprise]… “We didn’t even know about this film a month ago, but here it is competing with Batman and Bourne Legacy?” I mean, we opened in New York and we were the third largest film in Union Square. Downtown, big Regal Cinema House. This is the marquee theater in the whole country and 2016 is the third highest-grossing film [there]. We were behind the Bourne Legacy, which opened that weekend and Dark Knight which opened the weekend before. This little documentary… that showed Hollywood, “there is something out there that we don’t know.” It has opened some doors and eyes. I did a lot of interviews around that time just on the marketing and the industry of this film. They didn’t want to get into the politics of it, but just “How did you do this?” It just took everybody by storm last summer.
KW: That’s interesting because you’ve had this little studio in Alabama making Fireproof, doing pretty good money… the Titans film. You would think by now that they would realize that at least part of the country… you could get $20M from, let alone $33M (2016’s Gross).
JS: If I can take this one step further. Nikki Finke, over at “Hollywood Deadline,” which is probably the most powerful gossip column out there. Nikki said two things. She pointed out with Lincoln at the Golden Globes… that Bill Clinton was the one who introduced it. Then she said, “Couldn’t they find one Republican in the country that Hollywood could have stomached to introduce Lincoln, a Republican President?” And the second thing, during the Academy Awards… she said, “Look, half the country turned this off when Michelle Obama came on. So, here you have someone in Hollywood who really does get it… saying, “Look, you guys are turning off half the country!” The currency within the industry is more about social power versus just straight money. So, it doesn’t have the market efficiencies people expect that way. So that is why you get this disconnect, because there is actually a cultural disconnect. It’s not a monetarily, to the market-disconnect that they’re really worried about.
KW: A lot of conservatives and libertarians can’t stand Matt Damon, George Clooney, etc. for the liberal things that they say… Do you think that folks realize how much power that we as viewers and audience members hold? How can we get that message to them?
JS: The viewers actually hold all the trump cards. I think the place you are seeing this in is in Cable TV. Cable TV has to work on market efficiencies. It’s not about the cocktail parties. Hollywood Theatrical films are about the Hollywood parties. Cable TV is the place where you’re seeing this. We see Duck Dynasty. A conservative, pro-gun, pro-family, pro-small business… tearing up the charts. American Chopper … small business, family dynamics, kind of pro-patriotic message there. Pawn Stars, I think that is one of the best Shows [as far as] watching transactions happen. How I buy X to sell it to X to make a profit? So, I can stay in business as a small business. So, I think that Cable is actually the place for conservatives and you can see it immediately that people are voting with their dollars. As far as eyeballs watching a show. It is changing the industry.
The Bible! These last two weeks, it beat network prime-time. From a cable channel. So, 13.8 M people watched it the first week. 10.2 the 2nd week, still beating network prime-time programming on a Sunday night. So… in the cable TV world, it’s starting to show through. And that is where the consumers can see this. You know, there is this kind of whole thing where you pay for George Clooney. You give him this salary, because you give him your dollars. They flow back through to him. That allows him to do all these other events, fly around and do all these things and… it is undermining everything you want at home. Just because you went and saw a movie he was in.
KW: Your nine dollars!
JS: Yes, your nine dollars. You don’t get how that trickles back and around to them in that way. And that is a very good point that needs to be made more and more to people. It’s a market-economy. Look, Promised Land, the anti-fracking movie… it did $6 M at the box office with two big stars… John Krasinski and Matt Damon (also the film’s Co-Screenwriters). And here it is, people just didn’t want to see it. They don’t want to hear that.
KW: It’s a bomb!
JS: Yes. Yes.
KW: It’s like Lions Lambs.
JS: Exactly. All the anti-war movies and things of that nature, people don’t want to see that. Then, you get an Act of Valor that comes out. Does $65 M at the box office and Hollywood says “What the hell just happened?” It’s like, it shows up every once in a while. So, the thing we’re trying to try to work through now is… the part we’re missing in all this… ten years ago, I wouldn’t have said there are good writers. Good-enough writers in Hollywood with kind of libertarian-conservative viewpoints. We have that now. We have actors that will come on board for our things. Plus, there are just actors that need to work and directors that need to work [who] will just take a paycheck on that and not get in the way of that.
Marketing and distribution, I think with 2016, Act of Valor, these types of movies. We’ve shown that we can do that. We can find an audience and they will come to the theatre. The component that’s missing is independent financing. Conservatives don’t want to play in the space. They don’t understand it and to be honest, they just don’t care about it. But at the same time, they keep talking about “Why do we keep losing elections?” I wouldn’t be asking myself, “How did we lost this election?” I’d be asking… “How do we win this?” Because every year, we have about a $4B cultural deficit that runs against us. Against the values of conservative people who would be here at CPAC. And that’s not even taking into account the marketing and advertising. That’s just production budgets on stuff. Look, we pat ourselves on the back when we match them dollar for dollar on the campaign trail. “Guys, you are already down about the $16 B culturally over the last four years over to where the country has been. Politics is defense, culture is offense. And I don’t think the Republicans want to play offense.
KW: I agree with you. One of the things, as an independent filmmaker, they [conservative donors] seem obsessed with changing Hollywood, with changing the studio system… which they’re not going to be able to affect. They could change independent film radically...
JS: Megan Ellison is tearing up the business right now. She’s done a fabulous job. She came into Hollywood with a couple hundred million dollars, through a film-finance thing from her father. [She] was able to do True Grit. She just did Zero Dark Thirty. I mean, she is making a big impact. And she is independent from all the studios. She didn’t have to respond to the pressures of them. If we had a revolving credit line, if one of these billionaires would put that up… I’m like, “guys, $250 M would change the game in such a way, you don’t even understand.” [We] could get big feature films out there.
KW: Or ten $25 M films...
JS: Exactly. We need to tell our stories. “George Washington” is a movie that should be made from a conservative standpoint. You know, the founding of America. These types of movies should be made on our side. At the same time, I think we need to do small documentaries like the 2016’s of the world. More of that stuff. There is a whole world out there on TV that we could be exploring. Again, what if you just tweaked Pawn Stars five-percent and really had them really walk through a transaction being a small-business owner… and also bring in… maybe be a little bit of agenda-driven, but bring in, “how do these regulations affect me as a small business owner?” Do something with manufacturing here. “Why can’t we have manufacturing here?” Those types of questions come up, have them in a show. I think people would get it and they would follow through on it.
KW: Any advice for anyone who’d like to try to go into filmmaking?
JS: I think there is two ways you have to look at going in. One is as an independent filmmaker, go out and raise your own financing and make that happen. The second is... are you going to work within the studio system? They’re two completely different jobs and we need people in both spheres. So, for the independent filmmakers, it’s become a lot easier. When I started, if you wanted to buy an editing system, you were looking at $100K. Now, you’re looking at $10K and you’ve got an amazing editing system in your house. We edited a lot of stuff [for 2016] on the road off a laptop. It is amazing what you can do now. Acquisitions technology… the cameras and everything else. I think a lot of that is becoming a lot easier to do and a lot cheaper. So, we are on the cusp of a revolution there. We’ve seen the democratization of filmmaking. What we’re still struggling with is how do you get that out to the market. I think social media is helping to develop that, advertising schemes. But at the end of the day, it still takes financing. That’s the problem.