LOS ANGELES -- Dinesh D'Souza felt that President Obama had been telling his story to Americans for years. The conservative author wanted to give them a different version.
So he worked on a documentary, 2016: Obama's America, that put the president in a more critical light. And apparently, there's an audience that agrees with D'Souza's vision.
In its first week in wider distribution, the 87-minute documentary grossed an estimated $6.2 million, far exceeding industry expectations, according to independent distributor Rocky Mountain Pictures. That was virtually the same amount as the major studio action film Premium Rush collected -- and Obama's America was playing in roughly 1,100 fewer theaters.
"I realized Obama was telling his own story in his own voice and thought it would be interesting to use his voice in a documentary where it would be indisputable to people that this was Obama's own narrative," said D'Souza, who wrote the film with John Sullivan.
The film draws heavily from D'Souza's own life, as he describes how coming to study in America from his native India helped to shape his political ideology. Throughout the film, he often addresses the camera face-forward, pointing out the similarities between his upbringing and Obama's. Many of the author's arguments about Obama's support of anticolonialism are drawn from D'Souza's controversial book The Roots of Obama's Rage, and the movie frequently uses dramatic re-enactments featuring unknown actors to depict past events.
Heading into the weekend, pre-release audience surveys suggested Obama's America would gross about $4 million -- but by midday Friday, ticket sales were so brisk that estimates were lifted to $6 million. The movie debuted seven weeks ago in Houston and had raked in $2.4 million as it expanded from 169 theaters to 1,091 locations last weekend. In total, the film has sold $9.1 million worth of tickets.
It's already the most successful conservative political documentary of all time, as defined and ranked by Box Office Mojo. It's also the sixth-highest-grossing all-around political documentary, ranking behind four Michael Moore films and An Inconvenient Truth, which starred Al Gore and glaciers.
Today, the film is scheduled to open in an additional 1,800 locations nationwide, and promoters hope the success continues with the attention stemming from the wider release coinciding with the climax of the Republican National Convention in Florida.
"I've always felt that there is a real hunger for Obama out there and a sense that there's something about him that escaped full understanding," D'Souza said of the film's success. "The large crowd for the film shows that there's more interest than usual in politics and a real political anxiety in the country about the future of the American dream."
Last year, D'Souza's Roots was publicly denounced by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and Vice President Joe Biden, among other Obama supporters. The writer, also president of The King's College in New York City, said he began formulating an idea for his first documentary when he heard the audio version of Obama's autobiography.
The author was also hopeful that given the right timing, the film -- which he co-directed -- might replicate the success of Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. That film, released before the 2004 election, took a critical look at then-President George W. Bush and ultimately went on to gross an unprecedented $222 million worldwide.
D'Souza was eventually able to find 25 donors familiar with his books who were willing to finance the film's $2.5 million budget.
To promote the movie's wide release this weekend, the filmmakers employed a grassroots marketing strategy.
Mark Joseph, a film producer who helped lead the promotional campaign, had a team begin to call conservative groups in the spring to make them aware of Obama's America. Joseph said he had experienced pushback from faith-based groups, finding "a little less enthusiasm on the faith side because of nonprofit status versus political status."
The movie has also been the topic of conversation on numerous talk-radio programs, and D'Souza has made appearances on CNN and Fox -- though he said he was turned down by HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher. It appears that stoking the conservative fan base worked well, because the documentary performed best over the weekend in red-state bastions such as Baton Rouge, La., and Wichita, Kan.
D'Souza said that he had yet to hear from the Obama camp, but he believed it was "probably quite worried about the film given that they were in major hysteria when my book came out."
This report includes material from The Washington Post.