Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Barack Obama Special Issue: President Launches Nat Geo’s “Cosmos” / Update of “2016 Obama’s America” and its $40+/- Million Payday

Here’s a press release lead that caught my eye:

“President Barack Obama will introduce the highly anticipated series premiere episode of COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY airing this Sunday, March 9 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on 10 Fox Networks Group Channels, including FOX and National Geographic Channel.

In the video message, which leads into the premiere episode, President Obama invites a new generation to embrace the spirit of discovery and inspires viewers to explore new frontiers and imagine limitless possibilities for the future.”

The PR went on:

This first multi-network launch event for Fox Networks Group, along with the series debut on Fox International Channels and National Geographic Channels International, will make COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY available on 220 channels in 181 countries, with an overall footprint of more than half a billion homes.

That’s great news for Nat Geo, and also for the category of ambitious, Science television.

It speaks to the President’s character that hasn’t blackballed the entire Fox universe. After all, Fox News has been his implacable foe, conjuring up wave after wave of dirty attacks on Obama’s ‘unconstitutional’ birth and other signifiers of his racial ‘otherness.’

This got me thinking about the successful, rightwing film: “2016 Obama’s America.”

That independent documentary about Barack Obama became the top grossing doc of 2012, and 4th highest grossing (non-Giant Screen) one of all time, ranking with hits from the other side like “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Inconvenient Truth”

The ‘revelation’ of “2016 Obama’s America” is that the president secretly burns with the angry, anti-colonial ideology of the Kenyan father he barely knew, and that as president he will find a way to impose this radical vision on the American people.

Last year, we published an informative and fascinating business Case Study on “2016.”

Writer Gregory Crofton here updates his work with new data on the film’s theatrical and DVD paydays, and on the legal and moral troubles that swamped one of its co-producers.



By Gregory Crofton
(Originally published, January 18, 2013. Updated, March 9, 2014)

“2016 Obama’s America” is $2.5 million co-production by John Sullivan, Dinesh D’Souza and Gerald Molen.

Launched with the tagline “Love Him, Hate Him, You Don’t Know Him,” “2016” grossed $35/- million.

Opening in limited release in July 2012 on a single screen in Houston, it went into wide release in late August in 1,091 theaters, and peaked in September 2012 when it played in 2,017 theaters.


  • Dinesh D’Souza: “2016” is based on “The Roots of Obama’s Rage.” Published in 2010, it reached #4 on The New York Times Best Seller List. D’Souza is a well-known conservative writer, and author of “Illiberal Education,” “Letters to a Young Conservative,” and “The Enemy at Home.”
  • John Sullivan is a filmmaker and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. He co-produced and co-directed “2016” with D’Souza. He had produced “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” an attack on evolution science that grossed nearly $8 million at the box office.
  • Gerald Molen is an experienced Hollywood producer behind such hits as“Schindler’s List”and “Jurassic Park”. He was introduced to D’Souza’s project through a mutual friend ofSullivan’s.
  • Rocky Mountain Pictures: Ron Rodgers and Randy Slaughter are based in Salt Lake City, and each have 40+ years’ experience distributing and marketing films.  RMP’s biggest documentary release prior to “2016 Obama’s America” was “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”

Core Values

  • D’Souza’s views are conservative. But his book and film argue that they “present information that Americans haven’t heard about.”
  • Molen helped ensure that “2016” was a compelling film that conveys this information in an entertaining way, according to Sullivan.
  • And in a way that works on the big screen.
  • It was important to him not regurgitate a political book, but to make a compelling movie.

Origins / Timeline

  • Sullivan met D’Souza through a mutual friend to discuss book/film opportunities.
  • Sullivan proposed that “Roots of Obama’s Rage” would make a good film.
  • The work on the film began in 2011.
  • Sullivan didn’t finish the final edit until just prior to its premiere on one screen in Houston on July 13th.
  • They would have liked to release it in June but it wasn’t ready.


  • The producers didn’t create a trailer to pitch potential funders.
  • They relied on D’Souza’s bestselling book to sell the film.
  • D’Souza raised the money, along with Douglas Sain and Christopher Williams, from wide range of conservative contacts under a for-profit group called “Obama’s America Foundation.”
  • About 24 investors contributed to the venture.
  • “The Republican Party did not fund the film.”

NEW!…………………….SWEET SPOTS 2014………………………….NEW!
Production Cost Benchmarks for U.S. Factual Networks

  • What do 30 US channels pay for programs?
  • For docs? And reality?
  • For Signature, Standard and ‘BArgain-basement?
  • Is our commissioning team paying more or less than the competition?
  • Do preferred producers earn a premium?
  • Does my pitch fall in the budget sweet spot for my target network?

We interviewed dozens of executives and producers to create a unique source of proprietary information about network budgets for commissions and copro’s.

Read More

Production Budget

  • The production budget was $2.5 million.
  • The filmmakers would not disclose the cost of marketing and promotion.

Production Schedule

  • Development lasted about three months. “It was based on Dinesh’s books.”
  • Field production was about four months, with a lot of the work condensed in one trip to UK, Kenya, Indonesia and India.
  • Post-production was about two months.

Archive / Fair Use

  • There was no film archive cost for the film.
  • Filmmakers used the president’s own voice as a narrative thread.
  • The recordings were taken from Obama’s audio book, “Dream From My Father.”
  • Such use, Sullivan said, is allowed under the fair use clause of 1st Amendment.

Marketing Strategy

  • They relied on the marketing template created by Michael Moore for “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
  • “Fahrenheit” is a political documentary that was released in June 2004, a presidential election year.
  • Moore’s film grossed nearly $119 million to become highest-grossing documentary of all time.

Marketing Execution

  • The film poster was designed by Mike Inks of MLI Design.
  • “We wanted to convey an examination of Obama and his next four years if he ran unchecked,” Sullivan said.
  • They sent early screeners to key conservative media stars and arranged interviews.
    • Glen Beck, an ultra-conservative TV and radio host, is friendly with D’Souza.
    • Michael Berry, another conservative talk radio host, is also a friend.
    • The filmmakers also bought ad time on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Limbaugh is the king of conservative talk radio. He liked the film and promoted it outside the commercial ad time.

Release: “Find Your Audience Then Build On It!”

  • Instead of a wide release, they took a staged approach, beginning in the conservative city of Houston, and then rolling out to a limited number of screens in conservative areas.
  • Houston is one of the top ten U.S. theatrical markets. It provided a chance to impress all three national theater chains with “2016’s” high gross per screen, which was $32,000 on opening night. “That was just phenomenal,” Sullivan said. “It blew away all our expectations.”
  • They also decided to premiere in Houston because it is the home of Michael Berry, an influential conservative radio host. Berry did a private screening the day before the premiere screening that involved free tickets through a radio promotion.

Social Media

  • Social media helped boost great “word-of-mouth” reviews.
  • Some viewers had visceral reactions to the film. There were standing ovations, and “God Bless America” shouts were often shared on Facebook and Twitter.
  • In June the film’s Facebook page had 4,000 friends. By year-end, it had topped 300,000!
  • Podcasts, in retrospect, are an outlet Sullivan said he should have bought ad time on because they tend to have super-dedicated audiences.


  • The rollout was strategic and targeted.
  • It was different than the initial launch for their previous film “Expelled,” which was released on a fairly wide 1,052 screens.
  • “2016” was executed differently: “It was an economic issue,” Sullivan said. “We couldn’t afford to go any wider at the time. This ended up working in our favor.”
  • Four more screens were added in Houston.
  • Then it expanded to other conservative-heavy areas in Alaska and Nashville.
  • Then into larger cities in Louisiana, followed by Atlanta and New York City.
  • Perhaps its biggest night came on August 17th at Union Square Cinemas, New York. It was the third highest grossing film at the theater complex behind “Dark Knight” and “The Bourne Legacy.”
  • That week “2016” ramped up its distribution, from 169 screens to 1,091 by the following Friday, August 24th.
  • Sullivan credits Rocky Mountain Pictures with this astounding and unparalleled feat of distribution: It reached its widest release in September with 2,107 screens.

Distribution Cost

  • To exhibit a film in a theater is costly. A print costs $1,000 alone.
  • So as the cashflow rolled in, it went back out into marketing and expanding the film’s release.
  • But, after the great results at Union Square, it was easier to raise marketing money. “That’s when we accelerated things,” Sullivan said. “We had to get funding quickly. It’s always easier to get a marketing campaign funded once people have seen the movie.”

Speaking Engagements

Asian Side of the Doc
Chengdu, China, March 18-21, 2014
Panel: Crowd-funding Platforms in Asia
Panel: 3D / IMAX/ BIG SCREENS for Docs

Toronto, April 5-6, 2014
Panel: How to Get the Funds: Co-pro’s and Foundations
Interview: Louis Vaudeville, CC&C Paris: The Apocalypse Franchise

AND, don’t miss Hot Docs in the Big TO.
April 24 – May 4, 2014
BTW, We just began to prepare with the Hot Docs team our hot-selling annual International Documentary Program Buyers’ Guide

Women in Film Summit
Pittsburgh PA, May 16-18
‘Documentary & Unscripted Networks Worldwide: What Do They Want?
What Do They Pay? What’s the Deal?’
Watch out for details


Sullivan outlined several hurdles that the film had to overcome.


  • “2016” had to fight against the audience pull of the summer Olympic Games.
  • The games concluded August 12th, before the presidential conventions, so that was another reason they ramped up their ad spend around August 24th.

Broadcast Blackout

  • “2016” experienced a broadcast media blackout.
  • The big three networks would not sell them ad time.
  • “We were never able to buy prime time TV,” Sullivan said. “We were always on cable, reality shows, Fox, CNN. So we just went after that market as best we could, along with talk radio.”


Negative reviews poured in.

  • Read “Anti-Obama Screed,” from The Hollywood Reporter.
  • The filmmakers only responded to specific attacks against the film, i.e., by President Obama’s office, and by Entertainment Weekly, who, according to Sullivan, identified the film as being “racist.”
  • Otherwise they relied on positive comments posted by moviegoers who loved the film to counter the negatives.
  • Rotten Tomatoes, an online movie review site, had only a 30% positive review from critics but its users rated it 80% positive.
  • “It’s kind of democratization of the Internet,” Sullivan said. “It used to be that six bad reviews would kill a film. Now audiences are leaving their own reviews. I think that gives people pause.”
  • Here is an example of a rave review from audience member Jenn B. She posted this on Rotten Tomatoes Sept. 27, 2012:

“I loved this movie…very eye opening look at the President. It poses a lot of questions for people to think about. Does his father’s communist views reflect how he sees this country? Are the people that mentored him and to who he has looked up to make him the man he is today? Are their beliefs also his? Dinesh D’Souza doesn’t pull this stuff out of thin air. He travels to where Obama comes from, talks to people that knew him best. He uses examples of things that Obama himself has said. Very worth seeing no matter what political party you are.”

Online Rumors

  • Online rumors affected box office.
  • Just as word of mouth, email marketing, and social media helped the movie soar, by late September a rumor spread that the film would air on Fox network before the election. Sullivan said that he even received some emails that spread this misinformation. This discouraged potential customers and put downward pressure on the box office.
  • “It was a great way to disrupt the movie,” said Sullivan, who doesn’t know who started the email campaign. “It could have been somebody doing nefarious business. Or just people who wanted to get it to a wider circulation before the election. Maybe they thought they were helping us.”

Marital Scandal

  • Ticket sales and home video sales may have taken a pre-election hit because of a highly negative D’Souza story that hit the wires in late October 2012.
  • A reporter exposed his marital infidelity and shredded his reputation as a pro-family, Catholic moralist. This likely cost him his job as president of a small Christian college in New York.
  • Read the story here.


According to the filmmakers, “2016 Obama’s America” is a model for how to build an audience for a conservative documentary despite a limited marketing budget.

Sullivan says that the keystones are:

  • Provide great content – people hadn’t heard this compelling political story.
  • Come up with a great title: “2016 Obama’s America” is simple and forward-looking.
  • The theatrical release was calculated to build core audience, and provide information for people voting in the 2012 presidential election.
  • Market the film directly to your core audience through radio or social media groups.
  • Use a distributor that will tailor its release of the film to key markets, then build on them.
  • Work hard: Sullivan put in 16-to 18-hour days for months. “I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” he said. “We had to be constantly resourceful and shrewd at the same time.”


UPDATE, March, 2014

  • Since its release on home video at the end of 2012, “2016 Obama’s America” earned $6.3 million from home video sales, according to The Numbers, a sales research firm.  John Sullivan, co-director of the film, wouldn’t confirm that number, but he did say it has done “very well on VOD and DVD.”
  • That combined with a $33.3 theatrical take leaves the film’s gross domestic revenue at just under $40 million, making it the second highest grossing political documentary, second only to Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which grossed $119 million domestically.
  • Co-direct0rs Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan – have a new documentary “America” scheduled for release on the Fourth of July, 2014. D’Souza has described it as a “patriotic” film, one that aims to dispute the leftist political view of history that portrays America as a society based on theft, including land plundered from Native Americans and Mexico, and labor stolen from African Americans. The film’s trailer shows D’Souza interviewing Noam Chomsky, a noted liberal political thinker.

Recent Controversies: 


  • Federal law enforcement officials recently charged Dinesh D’Souza, co-director of “2016 Obama’s America,” with Senate-related campaign finance violations.
  • D’Souza pleaded not guilty.
  • He was released after posting a $500,000 bond and surrendering his passport’ and ordered to adhere to travel restrictions.
  • In October 2012, D’Souza resigned his post as president of King’s College, a Christian school in New York City, after the media reported that he was engaged to another woman while still married.


  • Gerald Molen, the Hollywood producer behind “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park,” and a producer of “2016 Obama’s America,” also made headlines recently. He sent an open letter to the Academy defending a composer who broke a rule by promoting his own Oscar nomination.
  • The composer Bruce Broughton, a former Academy governor, emailed members of the song branch and pointed out his nominated-track for the Christian-themed film “Alone But Not Alone.” Because of the violation, the Academy rescinded the nomination for the song on Jan. 29. Molen’s letter, according to The Hollywood Reporter, accused the Academy of “faith-based bigotry,” and argued that self-promotion for an Oscar is common practice.



  • What an interesting breakdown & background behind this doc. Thanks for sharing. Any filmmaker – no matter their political beliefs – could learn from the approaches the producers employed in marketing & making this doc.  Craig D. Forrest
  • Count IMAX!
    “You have a headline describing 2016 as the “4th Highest Grossing Documentary – Ever!”  This is wildly false. I don’t know what list you are operating from, but I know of more than 20 films that have grossed more – in fact there are perhaps 20 IMAX documentaries alone that have grossed more than this. It might be a good idea to consider a different way of expressing this result if you wish to make the decision that IMAX films somehow don’t count.”


  1. Completely agree with the other commentary…no way this is the 4th highest grossing documentary ever… come on, let’s be serious!

  2. Hello Peter,

    Thank you so much for providing the excellent analysis of why and how Obama’s America 2016 was so successful as a theatrical doc. The detailed breakdown is a useful blue print for any documentary filmmaker with a film they hope to launch in the difficult theatrical market.
    Great work!

    Vanessa Dylyn
    Matter of Fact Media

  3. Mr. Hamilton apparently does have a valid factual basis for his assertion that the the 2016 documentary is the 4th highest grosser to the extent that he has sourced the information from

    Rank Title (click to view) Studio Lifetime Gross / Theaters Opening / Theaters Date
    1 Fahrenheit 9/11 Lions $119,194,771 2,011 $23,920,637 868 6/23/04
    2 March of the Penguins WIP $77,437,223 2,506 $137,492 4 6/24/05
    3 Justin Bieber: Never Say Never Par. $73,013,910 3,118 $29,514,054 3,105 2/11/11
    4 2016 Obama’s America RM $33,449,086 2,017 $31,610 1 7/13/12

  4. What a terrific overall analysis. It’s very useful for would- be producers and observers alike. I really appreciate the objectivity.

  5. Thanks Peter. This is terrific as always.

    Nice to know they used the marketing template from Farhenheit. What is good for the left is good for the right I guess!

    Would be great to get a copy of that template.

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