Federal Politics

Published — September 2, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

No star turn for McCain and Obama at the local cineplex

Introduction

Looking for a reprieve from the political echo chamber this election season? Your best bet may be to head to the local movie theater, which, unlike the bookstore or boob tube, is almost certain to be free of brass-knuckle attacks on McCain or Obama. Though Michael Moore showed four summers ago with Fahrenheit 9/11, that politically driven documentaries could fill the seats, movie theaters have since mellowed. That’s in part because political attack movies struggle, not necessarily to attract an audience, but to comply with the regs laid down by the Federal Election Commission.

A case in point: Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit group, traditionally pours about $1.5 million into its CU Productions arm each year. David Bossie, president of Citizens United, told the Center last year that “this is something that we as conservatives can’t ignore: the power of film.”

In January 2008 Citizens United released Hillary: The Movie, which found its way into only a handful of theaters and suffered from poor promotion. That’s because Citizens United ran into serious problems with the FEC: the promos for the movie were seen as political attack ads, making the group subject to campaign finance law. That would mean, among other things, that the group would have to disclose its list of donors.

Citizens United sued the FEC, and its case even went to the Supreme Court, but the FEC’s ruling prevailed. So, absent advertising, how do you get people to go see a movie they’ve never heard of? You go online. Hillary: The Movie was promoted on the Internet and sold on DVD, where campaign finance law does not apply. Citizens United sold more than 20,000 DVDs of Hillary in January when it was released; that’s a haul of about $600,000 for the month.

And they’re giving it another shot. This week Citizens United released its documentary on Barack Obama, Hype: The Obama Effect. And this time the group got some advertising – in a 30-second spot that aired on Fox News for a week, costing $250,000. As of now, the film is only scheduled to play in Denver and Minneapolis, the sites of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, for one night apiece. Talk about a limited engagement.

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