Tonight’s first debate faceoff between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is expected to draw Super Bowl-size ratings just as filmmakers continue to jump head-first into the political waters with all eyes focused on the November presidential election. Earlier this year, conservative gadfly Dinesh D’Souza — who beat doing prison time for a felony illegal campaign contribution in 2014 — attempted to damage the Clinton campaign with his latest, called Hillary’s America: The Secret of the Democratic Party. Although clearly not an Oscar contender and widely derided, it has grossed $13 million, more than any other docu this year. His 2012 propaganda doc 2016: Obama’s America grossed $33 million. Of course Michael Moore is the master of this, with his Fahrenheit 9/11 earning a record $120 million.
Clearly there is box office business to be had by jumping into the political debate, and now many think it can benefit a film’s awards prospects as well. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that there is one movie trying to tie itself directly into tonight’s debate (Deadline will be live-blogging the Clinton-Trump faceoff). But who knew it would come from Disney? The studio’s animated smashZootopia is throwing a debate-watching party tonight at the Sunset Tower. The filmmakers won’t be on hand campaigning, I’m told, but Disney has invited members of different awards groups including the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assocaition to join in the festivities. The invite — which features a donkey character from the film dressed up as Clinton (repping the Democrats) and an elephant dressed as Trump (repping the GOP) — quotes political strategist Mike Murphy predicting of the debate that “It’s going to be a zoo!” One person involved with the film said that quote “cemented” the reasoning for this viewing party, tying it directly to the film’s title as well as its themes. There’s also a critic’s quote on the invite saying, “Election year makes dysfunctional politics of Zootopia ring truer.” The reasoning for the tie-in event is further explained by stating this is all “in keeping with this year’s Zootopia celebration and our collective truth-is-stranger-than-fiction political narrative.”
Although Zootopia initially was sold as a family-friendly toon with lots of amusing animal characters, the studio and its awards brain trust are trying to put it right back into the center of political discussion, thereby giving the film a certain gravitas and importance that other Animated Feature contenders might not have. It also sets up the film nicely for an Original Screenplay nomination. Upon its release in March, critics pointed out the social and political connections in the film including what the Philadelphia Inquirer noted were issues about exclusion, prejudice, xenophobia and women’s rights. Forbes called it a “race relations parable,” while the appropriately named Daily Beast said it was “Disney’s antidote to Donald Trump’s racial animus.” Launching its Oscar campaign by making it part of the current national conversation is a unique but intriguing strategy for a PG-turned-PC animated movie.
Other movies also have been trying to latch on to the political climate in the country. Earlier this summer CBS Films was busy pointing out the political and social relevance of its contender Hell or High Water, which is about a couple of brothers who, after their family land is threatened with foreclosure by a bank, decide to rob its branch locations to pay the bank back. This week’s opener Denial from Bleecker Street deals in part with the rise in demagoguery, with critics pointing up similarities to the film’s real-life accused Holocaust denier David Irving (played by Timothy Spall) and some of Trump’s various statements that have drawn ire from political fact-checkers, notably his five-year “birther” assault on President Obama and accusations that he was not born in the U.S..
Before it got caught up in the controversy of writer-director-star-producer Nate Parker’s college rape trial, Fox Searchlight already was plotting to directly tie the Nat Turner slave-rebellion film The Birth of a Nation into this year’s election by setting up voter registration areas in theater lobbies of all the major exhibition chains playing the film during the first month of its run. In a July email to top theater chains from Searchlight that Deadline obtained, the studio proposed public service announcements with Birth of a Nation actors pointing out the importance of voting that would run in cinemas, along with mobilization from several large groups such as MTV’s Rock the Vote, NAACP and Voter Latina and voter registration tables in lobbies from the film October 7 opening day through November 7. The plan also called for a big Birth of a Nation footprint on Tuesday’s National Voter Registration Day with nationwide promo screenings and registration setups. Huge-name theater chains including AMC and Regal and even smaller but key specialty chains like Landmark simply did not bite, and that was even before the film became embroiled in other problems.
Searchlight said today that it has gone ahead with the idea for voter registration and promo screenings Tuesday, with only some smaller regional chains and independent theaters and none of the major names. The original proposed monthlong plan for registration now has been reduced to participating theaters on the film’s opening weekend. One executive from a major exhibitor told me when Searchlight first floated this — and hoped it would be enacted on a bigger scale — “it’s not a good idea, and polarization is risky. Trump supporters might look at our theaters as courting Clinton supporters. It is just not prudent to participate, ” the exec said, even though Searchlight emphasized it didn’t have to be tied just to its movie but instead could be for any other movie playing in the multiplex, even if the PSA was strictly from the Birth cast.
Another potential Oscar contender that is using election season to get its message across is Fisher Stevens’ Before the Flood, which had its world premiere at Toronto. Stevens, an Oscar winner for the documentary The Cove, directed this docu about the importance of doing something about climate change with Leonardo DiCaprio in a strong on-camera presence interviewing many people on the topic including President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and even Pope Francis. With climate change, and those who deny it, such a key issue in the race, National Geographic is timing the film to the election. “We are doing a White House screening and on October 21st will get a small theatrical run,” Stevens told me when I sat down with him in Toronto.
Of course that theatrical run also will qualify the film for Oscars. “We are going to do some swing-state screenings like Florida and try to get Marco Rubio out of office. … What is it f*cking going to take for people to go, ‘OK, let’s make it a voting issue’?” he asked. Stevens is especially happy that after the short theatrical run, Nat Geo will broadcast the film on October 30 simultaneously to 171 countries — including, of course, the United States just nine days before the election. The filmmaker says it will air commercial-free and that Nat Geo has other big plans beyond that one airing. “Do you know that climate change never once even came up in the debates between Romney and Obama in 2012?” Stevens asked me incredulously. For that reason and more, he is just one of many filmmakers this season determined to bring their movies into the political discourse.