That Time Steve Bannon Roamed the Cannes Film Fest With 'Duck Dynasty' Star Phil Robertson
Three months before the firebrand filmmaker became President Trump's right-hand man, he brought the reality star to the fest, hoping to find a buyer for two political docs.
This time last year, Steve Bannon, now President Trump's chief strategist, was pacing in a suite in the Majestic hotel in Cannes, looking just like any other schlubby producer hoping to land a distribution deal. With his hands stuffed in the pockets of his cargo pants, Bannon talked a mile a minute with a THR reporter about the two films he'd brought to the market to screen: Torchbearer, a fire-and-brimstone documentary featuring Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson railing against godless America, and Clinton Cash, an exposé on then-presumed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. "I said, 'We have a real horror film here,' " Bannon eagerly described the Clinton film to THR. " 'So let's make it look like a horror movie, with all the techniques and imagery and the interstitials with blood on the globe and all that …' "
Bannon's two screenings apparently did not draw much of a crowd. "Virtually no buyers attended," recalls one acquisition executive. "It was total amateur hour."
In fact, the man who was about to become one of the most powerful people on the planet — he'd be hired as Trump's top campaign adviser in August and then, after the election, as White House chief strategist — made virtually no impression when he visited Cannes in May 2016. He was just another of the hundreds of faceless producers who schlepped to the Marche du Film with reels under their arms — though in Bannon's case, he didn't even have a stand in the Pavilion. "Wow, I totally forgot he was at Cannes last year," says one buyer when reminded, repeating what turns out to be a common refrain of attendees.
Not surprisingly, neither of Bannon's movies ended up finding theatrical distributors (though he did eventually sell TV rights in Germany, Benelux and Japan and VOD rights in the U.S.).
Still, before he was given an office at the White House, Bannon actually was pretty well positioned to become a successful B- or maybe C-grade producer — the Roger Corman of right-wing documentaries — despite last year's amateurish screenings. He had, for starters, the one thing every producer needs most: rich friends willing to finance his films, like Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the conservative billionaire father and daughter who helped bankroll both Clinton Cash and Torchbearer (which Bannon also directed, getting paid $119,000, according to his 2016 financial disclosure forms) as well as some of Bannon's earlier documentaries, like 2012's District of Corruption and 2011's The Undefeated (about Sarah Palin).
Presumably, the Mercers also helped pay for last year's trip to Cannes, which couldn't have been cheap: Robertson had a suite at the Carlton and was traveling not only with a publicist but also with an armed bodyguard, telling THR at the time that he was worried about the ISIS threat ("I'm not authorized to discuss," is all the reality star would say about the specifics of his fears). The Mercers — and if the name is familiar, it might be because Robert has been in the news lately for battling the IRS over $7 billion in back taxes — even hosted a lavish party for Bannon aboard their yacht, the Sea Owl. Sources say the star turnout was minimal.
Another thing Bannon had going for him as a producer: A robust market clearly exists for polarizing documentaries that lean to the far right. Dinesh D'Souza's 2016: Obama's America, for example, grossed $33 million in 2012 off a reported budget of $2.5 million. "If a distribution company actually goes big on [a theatrical release] and it's a doc pro or con on Trump or Hillary — that's where you can gross," says The Orchard's Paul Davidson, an active buyer at festivals (who, like most of the buyers THR contacted for this story, has no memory of encountering Bannon at Cannes).
Where Bannon might have gone wrong with Torchbearer and Clinton Cash was trying to sell them at a festival on the French Riviera, where Bible-thumping, Hillary-hating invective isn't quite the crowd-pleaser it is stateside. Or else Bannon may have just been ahead of the curve.
"Cannes is such catchall market," says Chris Charalambous, head of acquisitions at Freestyle Releasing (he also doesn't remember Bannon at Cannes). "People pay attention around the world to what goes on in America, for better or for worse, so it's not totally surprising that Bannon would try to catch the buzz for his film there during an election year."
Thanks to Trump's election, the world probably will never know what other films Bannon might have gone on to produce. Or maybe it will. If rumors about an ouster from the White House turn out to be true (he already lost his spot on the National Security Council), Bannon could be back on the Croisette in 2018.
This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.