EXCLUSIVE: Many in Hollywood found ways to express their displeasure for President Donald Trump’s four-year track record, from fundraising to social media rants. Then there is the tandem of bestselling author Don Winslow and his agent Shane Salerno, latter a screenwriter who co-wrote James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar sequels. This campaign season, they have made dozens of short films that developed a huge online following. The shorts have ranged in focus from how the Trump administration handled issues like COVID, border enforcement, gun control and a relationship with leaders like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, to specific segments on battleground states that will likely decide whether President Trump gets another four years, or Joe Biden unseats him. The messages in the films are plain-spoken but have been fog cutters, with collective viral penetration surpassing 100 million views. The battleground film about Pennsylvania uses the music of Bruce Springsteen and got 9 million views; Jeff Daniels provides the narration for one on Michigan, which is at 4.7 million. Here they explain why they leaned in to the filmmaking effort, and the groundswell they believe the films have created, without the expenditure of a single ad dollar. Winslow and Salerno wrote them together, and Salerno and his Story Factory team produced them.
DEADLINE: What hatched the idea to do these short advocacy films?
SHANE SALERNO: I watch hours of political television every day while I work. I saw a few political shorts on MSNBC. They were very rough. I thought that there could a different approach, more cinematic, more focused on storytelling, stronger use of music and voice-over. Don had built a strong platform on Twitter over the years with lots of very prominent celebrities, journalists, network anchors, major athletes and musicians, and political commentators. I saw an opportunity. I thought if we could produce really strong political videos, that a powerful platform already existed to launch them. I felt it could be a good marriage and fortunately I was right.
One of our earliest videos was about Bill Barr’s corruption and it quickly hit 1 million views. People were impacted by that video. We were stunned that we could reach a million people in a few hours. It galvanized us to do more, and to make better videos. The videos grew in ambition and began to focus on Trump and his catastrophic policies. We started to see our videos hitting 2 million views, then 3 million, then 4 million views and some reached 6 [million] and 7 million views. Remarkably, the cumulative number of views for all of our videos just surpassed 100 million views. We have also had several videos reach No. 1 on Twitter trending. We never imagined numbers like that, especially since we never have taken any donations or set up a political PAC. We are entirely self-funded while others have raised tens of millions of dollars.
DON WINSLOW: What astonishes me is how fast it happens. We can put out a video and be over a million views in two hours. By the end of the day we are often at 4, 5 or 6 million views. That’s an incredible impact. It’s exciting to watch the videos grow by the hour and to see how people are responding and what they are saying. Journalists and celebrities have been instrumental in spreading our videos. For instance, Jimmy Kimmel retweeted our video about the children locked in Trump’s border prisons. His retweet goes out to 12 million followers. Mark Ruffalo has been a major supporter and he has 7 million followers. Ben Stiller, Judd Apatow, Stephen King, Rosie O’Donnell, Jake Tapper, John Cusack, Nicolle Wallace, Joy Reid, Patricia Arquette, Sarah Cooper and even Mary Trump, to name just a few of roughly 500 celebrities and journalists who regularly share our videos.
DEADLINE: Don, you are an author of mainstream fiction, and it is best for your business to reach and not polarize book buyers. Shane, you produced these and as Don’s rep your interests are aligned, and you are also a screenwriter. None of your business aims are helped by taking such a strong political position. What has the current administration done in your mind to risk alienating readers who’ve bought your books and new readers who might buy them?
WINSLOW: The costs that we have experienced are nothing compared to the thousands of children Trump locked in cages for years, crying themselves to sleep every night, many physically and sexually abused, or the horror their parents felt every night wondering if their children were okay. I’m 67 years old and I became an overnight sensation in my mid-50s thanks to Shane. I drove the same car for 20 years, so I am not exactly what you would call a big spender. I was compelled to do this because of the horrors that Trump has unleashed on this country.
SALERNO: Trump and Biden are on the ballot November 3, but so is America. In the final analysis this is about what America we want to live in. I do not want to live in Donald Trump’s America. My anger at what Trump has done to this country is in the DNA of every one of our videos.
WINSLOW: And I think people responded to that anger. Because it’s righteous anger. We’re on the right side of this war.
DEADLINE: Have either of you done anything like this before?
SALERNO: I’ve been active in different ways, particularly consulting, but this was the first time I was moved to basically shut down my life and make political videos. I felt the stakes were that important. Kids in cages. Three young Supreme Court judges who will be on the court for decades. Two hundred federal court judges with lifetime appointments. A complete attack on the free press and major government institutions like the FBI, the Justice Department, the State Department and the CIA. Without sounding dramatic, we were called to this fight.
WINSLOW: I’ve never done anything like this before either. Trump’s behavior demanded we do something and when the videos started to take off and connect with people on such a large scale we just kept making more and working insane hours. Ultimately, we are two pissed off writers with our own money, who decided to go to war against Donald Trump. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished.
DEADLINE: How do you know they are making a difference?
WINSLOW: It could not be more clear. 100 million views. And every one of our videos has thousands and thousands of comments. You read the comments and you know the punches are landing on Trump. Also, we hear directly from the Biden-Harris campaign about the impact of each video. We regularly outperform the official campaign videos which have a great deal of money behind them. The sheer number of views are a major indicator, but the best indicator is probably the thousands or tens of thousands of comments for our videos. And I receive private messages and emails from Republicans who tell me they voted for Biden-Harris because of this video we made or that video we made.
SALERNO: Consider the numbers. 100 million views. Our video with Bruce Springsteen, currently with 9 million views on Twitter alone, did significantly better than all or most of the official campaign videos. It’s a deep penetration.
WINSLOW: Beyond the numbers our material has found its way into major stories, investigations and White House briefings. We have been contacted by whistleblowers and used their information and connected them to journalists to write stories. Another interesting indicator is the death threats we get. They tend to increase when we have big break video that goes viral. [They share one email that reads: “Hello there. I’d just like to leave a quick nice message. It is quite important. My Group and I would like to inform you that we’ve got you on our list of targets. We will strike soon. Expect to die, say good bye to your friends and family. Have a nice day.”]
DEADLINE: The short films are clearly pro-Biden. How is his campaign involved in your work? How have they helped amplify the views?
SALERNO: Everything we do is completely separate from the Biden-Harris campaign but the campaign and various senior members of the campaign have supported and amplified our work across social media from the very beginning and continue to do so up to and including this week. When Trump went after Kamala Harris, we went right after him and Ivanka. We produced a spot called the #TheTruthAboutIvanka that hit 2 million views immediately. When Trump went after multiple female Black journalists with hateful and racist attacks, we went after him. We produced a spot called #TrumpAttacksBlackWomen and it hit 1 million views immediately. It was even retweeted by some of the Black journalists that Trump had attacked, including April Ryan.
WINSLOW: A number of people came at us with big money to form a PAC so we could accept political donations or to just donate to buy TV spots and we passed every time. We passed. I really believe this worked because it was such a small group and because there was no monetization of our passion or political beliefs. That was important to me. That was important to Shane. This was personal to us.
DEADLINE: How did you get so many people to watch these videos?
WINSLOW: I cannot believe the videos have connected the way they have. It’s humbling and rewarding. Millions and millions of people have been at war with Trump. We’re just part of that. And we’ve made some incredible friends along the way. Trump’s horror show of a Presidency has galvanized so many people to join the fight against him. This is a war against Trump’s dark vision for America.
SALERNO: I think people recognize we are putting our hearts into these videos as well as our blood, sweat and tears. We didn’t take a dime from anyone and people know we could have easily done that. I think that hit people. They knew we were doing this for the right reasons and our videos were only successful because so many people liked them and shared them. We owe so much to so many people who helped by sharing our videos with their followings. It ranged from a hardworking teacher sharing it with 200 people to Mark Ruffalo sharing it to 7 million.
DEADLINE: How did you get Bruce Springsteen to lend his song to the one on Philadelphia? Why was having him so important?
WINSLOW: When Shane first suggested the concept for the video, which included the specific Springsteen song “Streets of Philadelphia” as a “reach out” to Pennsylvania voters, I thought he was crazy. Why would Springsteen do it? You have to understand Mike, Bruce Springsteen has been a hero of mine for four or five decades. He doesn’t need us and he is notoriously selective (and rightfully so) about how his amazing music is used. It seemed like the moon to me. But Shane thought it was possible, and after 21 years of working together I’ve learned to listen to him about what is possible or what he feels he can do. We had a connection to Nils Lofgren, a member of Springsteen’s E Street Band. He was a longtime reader of mine and a great guy. We reached out to him and tried to explain that we understood everybody probably bothers him about Bruce. Luckily, both he and his wife had been retweeting our videos. He had seen the impact our videos were having and he wanted to help us. He connected us to Jon Landau and it turned out Landau was a fan of my books. He said “Go make it on spec, no promises, but I’ll show it to Bruce.” Shane was up for three nights finding clips and editing with his editor. Draft after draft after draft. We thought we had a pretty good version and were about to send it when Shane pulled the plug and said “It’s not good enough. We’re only going to get one shot at this.” More drafts. Finally we sent it off and remarkably we got an email back from Landau that said that Bruce had watched it and approved it.” We kept working on it and finally released it. It was a phenomenon, at 9 million views on Twitter alone and the response to it was really incredible.
DEADLINE: How did Jeff Daniels find his way into narrating the one on Michigan?
WINSLOW: Shane executive produced The Comey Rule which Jeff Daniels starred in. Jeff also followed me on Twitter. We both had relationships with him. He had tweeted a few of our videos and was especially a fan of our video #OpenLetterToRepublicans. When Daniels saw the Springsteen video he sent me a short note that said something like, if you ever want me to narrate one for Michigan, let me know. I called Shane and Shane said “Let’s call him.” So we call Jeff at home in Michigan and Shane said I want you tell me about Michigan and what Michigan means to you. Jeff spoke eloquently and passionately about Michigan. And I see Shane just taking notes, writing everything Jeff said down. Words like, values, working hard, keeping your word, respecting women. We hung up the phone and wrote the script in an hour. We sent it to Jeff. He liked it, recorded the voice-over in his home music studio and sent it to us. Everything came together on that video. It just worked. When we watched it we realized we needed a little more. We wrote new lines, sent them to Jeff, he recorded them and we edited them in. And then we put it out there and again the response was incredible. It was a direct appeal to Michigan voters from a lifelong resident of Michigan and a man who loves Michigan. I think that all came through. Jeff’s voice is so unique. His dignity and decency shines through in everything he does and I think that is why the video works so well. Because of Jeff. Because of his sincerity.
SALERNO: No one loves Michigan more than Jeff Daniels. We put the video together quickly on that one and I felt it was pretty good, but it was really short. So we wrote some more lines. I called Jeff and said can you record some more lines. He was a great partner and helped us with whatever we asked of him. He recorded the additional lines, we edited them in and that became the final video which now has 5 million views on Twitter alone. That video really hit Michigan. We heard from so many people who live there. Remember, Trump beat Clinton in Michigan by only 10,704 votes, a 0.23% margin. So a video from Jeff Daniels that reaches 5 million, including many living in Michigan, can have a major impact on November 3. The same for the Springsteen video. Trump won Pennsylvania by only 44,000 votes. Our Springsteen video, titled #AmericaNeedsPennsylvania is now at 8.9 million views on Twitter alone. Again, a real impact. And we’ve heard that from people in Pennsylvania.
DEADLINE: Do you fear that you are preaching to the converted since audience devotion has such polarized followings, with people seeming only interested in coverage and opinion that mirrors their own political sensibilities?
SALERNO: No. We have reached Republicans, Democrats and Independents. We have converted Republicans and Independents into Biden-Harris voters and re-energized Democrats.
WINSLOW: Also, beyond social media, there has been considerable press about our videos and those articles reach Republican and Democrats equally.
DEADLINE: How much time does each one of these films take? Have you got a last one to tie it all together?
SALERNO: Sometimes we’re able to put videos out in a few hours and other times it takes a few days.
WINSLOW: There are three phases. 1. Concept. (always Shane), 2. Script (usually both of us), 3. Editing (Shane and his terrific editors at Eleven Films and editor Vashi Nedomansky).
SALERNO: We just released a video on Monday called ##GullibleWhiteMaleTrumpVoters which is currently over 2.2 million views in just a few hours. It’s a direct attack right at Trump’s base of low-information white male voters. Just saw that Jimmy Kimmel re-tweeted it to 12 million followers. We think it will keep growing. Millions of people are fighting Trump and doing incredible work. Each one of those people has an important story to tell. This is what we did. This was our contribution to the fight.
NEW VIDEO! #GullibleWhiteMaleTrumpVoters
This is my second to last video before signing off.
This video exposes the Trump base from top to bottom.
HELP ME GET 15,000 **QUOTE RETWEETS** and RETWEETS on the eve of the most important election in history.
I NEED YOUR HELP! pic.twitter.com/pnFK8xiX8G
— Don Winslow (@donwinslow) November 2, 2020