Citizens United: Rightwing Documentary Studio With Zero Hits But a Huge Home Run

Documentary producers aim to move the needle. Shift the conversation. Make an impact.

And hopefully make some money, too.

But only one documentary producer has been the catalyst for a far-reaching shift in American governance.

That’s Citizens United!

Citizens United’s determination to promote its film, “Hillary: The Movie” during a presidential primary season led to the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

That decision removed key campaign funding restrictions on corporations, the primary holders in the U.S. of wealth and access to power.

The result has been an exponential rise in campaign spending that is tilting the U.S. electoral process further to the Right.

Bossie

David Bossie

We asked Gregory Crofton to reach out to David Bossie, president and chairman of Citizens United.

Our goal was to learn about his documentary film studio: its pipeline, production budgets, filters, catalog, and more.

 

By Gregory Crofton
Freelance journalist and publisher and editor of ChannelNonfiction.com

Citizens United was founded in 2001 as a conservative advocacy group “dedicated to restoring our government to citizens’ control.”

Its goal was to downsize government while advancing conservative ideals like “free enterprise, strong families and national sovereignty and security.”

Citizens United now counts more than 500,000 members, each paying an annual donation of $15 or more.

Inspired by the Left

Bossie was inspired to make documentaries by the impact of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11”.

  • “Fahrenheit” was released in June 2004.
  • It grossed nearly $120 million domestically.
  • And topped $220 million worldwide.
  • It is the highest grossing documentary to date.

CU has since produced 25 documentaries, though none of them have been winners, either at the box office or on the stage at major award time. 

Starting Out

  • For advice on how to make movies, Bossie contacted his friend and fellow conservative Ron Silver, who had worked as an actor in Hollywood.
  • They decided to call British-born Hollywood filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd, best known for “Hanoi Hilton” (1987), a dramatic film about the suffering of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam.
  • Four months later, in late October, with Chetwynd as a writer on the project, Citizens United released its first documentary “41.11: The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die,” a response to “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

Legal Challenges

According to Bossie, the Federal Election Commission would not grant Citizens United a “media exemption” for “41.1” which they had done for Michael Moore.

  • This exemption allowed Moore to promote and exhibit his film during an election season, even though it was supported by corporate funding.
  • Consequently there was limited funding for “41.11” and it had a small release.

Citizens United’s next films were historical documentaries that did not challenge the FEC law, including:

  • “Broken Promises: The UN at 60” (2005) with Ron Silver.
  • “Rediscovering God in America” (2007) with Newt & Callista Gingrich.

Hillary

Hillary: The Movie

  • Citizens United planned a wide release for “Hillary The Movie” as the 2008 Presidential campaign season approached.
  • Because of his history with the FEC, Bossie knew that if CU paid to advertise its film and release it widely, its actions would be considered illegal under the McCain-Feingold Act.
  • “So, I’d really had enough, and I filed suit against the FEC,” Bossie said.
  • “We were not going to release “Hillary” on the defensive; we went on offense!”

Logos

Supreme Court Victory

  • Citizens United took the case up to the Supreme Court, earning a stunning 5-4 victory in 2010.
  • As a result, individuals are now allowed to conduct such election-time “political speech” with unlimited funds from corporations, nonprofit corporations and labor unions.

Taking the Battle to the States

  • After their Supreme Court victory, CU fought on at the state level.
  • Last year Citizens United sued the state of Colorado (and won) for the right to promote, during an election season “Rocky Mountain Heist” (2014) – about how the state went from voting Red to Blue.
  • “We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a lawsuit in Colorado because this film talked about and mentioned and showed images of the current sitting governor,” Bossie said.
  • New York State recently won a ruling against CU regarding disclosure of its donors.

Production Facility

  • Citizens United’s movie studio occupies approximately 3,000 square feet on Pennsylvania Avenue.
  • Citizens United owns cameras, edit bays, lighting packages, sound equipment, and maintains a production team of 7-10.
  • Bossie hires writer-directors affiliated with the WGA and DGA.
  • CU’s total full-time headcount is 15-20.

Budgets

  • “We produce for pennies on the dollar what we could produce in Hollywood,” Bossie said. “We’re able to make multiple films at parallel times on parallel tracks using our full-time production team.”
  • Production budgets for full-length docs (60-90 minutes) are between $600,000 and $1.5 million.
  • Shorter length docs (30-50 minutes) are budgeted between $300,000 and $600,000.
  • Promotional budgets are additional.
  • The advertising & promotional budget typically exceeds the production budget.
  • Funding comes mainly from the $15 membership fee from CU’s 500,000 contributors.

The Development Process

  • Bossie typically comes up with the concepts for film projects, but, he said, the ideas evolve, and the films become collaborative efforts with working partners.
  • Election cycles are just one determining factor.
  • CU looks for opportunities to launch a film where the public relations campaign leverages natural press interest.
  • “It may be the Pope’s death … it maybe Ronald Reagan’s birthday, it may be Hillary Clinton’s election,” Bossie said.

Marketing 

  • There are about 1 million members of Citizens United or people in touch with the group through e-mail lists and social media.
  • This constituency is allowed an exclusive first look at each new film.
  • Each film has its own website and trailer and/or TV spots, and its release is typically tied to an important date or event.
  • For larger budget films, CU hires outside PR firms in Hollywood and New York.
  • CU also has in-house research and legal teams that assist with a marketing rollout for a film.
  • Principals (director/writer/producers) are made available for television and radio on launch day.

Social Media

  • Citizens United also advertises on Facebook and social media.
  • Banner ads are placed in publications like The Hollywood Reporter, Politico, Breitbart News and The Drudge Report.

Release and Distribution

  • Each doc has its own distribution plan.
  • Some are released theatrically, and then on VOD, DVD and TV. Others are straight to DVD and TV.

Channels

  • Citizens United has television deals in place for all of its films.
  • Its library has been purchased by NewsMax television, which bills itself as “America’s fastest growing conservative channel.”
  • NewsMax reaches 40+ million homes via DirecTV, DISH Network and VERIZON FiOS.
  • The docs also air on Family Entertainment Television, and Hubbard-affiliated stations.

Magnolia

  • Another success story, Bossie said, involves the release of “Occupy: Unmasked” (2012) through Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet distribution arm.
  • The documentary stars the late conservative news personality Andrew Breitbart.
  • Magnet handled the theatrical release, as well as television, VOD and DVD.

Audience

  • Bossie didn’t share an estimate of viewers reached by his films.
  • “Hillary: The Movie” had the greatest reach, because of the Supreme Court decision.
  • “It had I think probably a small viewership at launch,” Bossie said, “but over the years it’s been seen by a lot of people.”

Hillary: The Sequel

  • “Hillary: The Sequel” is in production now.
  • It will cover her term as Secretary of State and her time running “Clinton Inc.,” according to Bossie.

PETER’s TAKEAWAY: STUDIO MODEL?

  • We use the word ‘studio’ to describe the CU documentary operation.
  • A ‘studio’ is a major Hollywood content creator that is seeking hits or niche successes, usually led by a theatrical release.
  • CU enjoys a different model, one that we are seeing more frequently in our consulting practice, for instance in the Wellness and Sports franchise categories.
  • The CU documentary serves as a ‘subscriber acquisition’ tool. It attracts new ‘members’ and helps retain or renew existing ones.
  • The documentary pipeline also attracts big donors and sponsors, and serves other mission goals, such as driving CU’s legal actions related to election spending.
  • The CU members’ regular ‘first look’ at a CU documentary serves a role somewhat like a non-profit subscriber receiving a monthly magazine in their letterbox.
  • But a documentary has the potential to deliver more impact and more emotional engagement than a magazine.
  • An Emmy, or a boxoffice hit like “Fahrenheit 9/11” would be nice for Citizens United. But that’s not the model driving its documentary operation.

CATALOG

Thanks

  • To David Bossie for sharing about CU’s strategy and operations.
  • And to Gregory for his persistence and hard work!

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