Box Office: Why Dinesh D'Souza's 'Death of a Nation' Didn't Get a Big Trump Bump

Death of a Nation - Poster -Publicity-P 2018
Courtesy Photo

The alt-right doc, the first of the controversial pundit's films to open during Donald Trump's presidency, didn't fire up as much of the conservative base as his previous work.

In summer 2012, conservative idealogue Dinesh D'Souza made a name for himself among political documentary filmmakers when his film 2016 Obama's America grossed $6.5 million in the first weekend of its nationwide expansion.

Obama's America ultimately topped out at $33.4 million, the second-best showing of any political doc in history, behind only his nemesis Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 ($119.2 million), not adjusted for inflation.

But this past weekend, D'Souza's pro-Trump doc Death of a Nation failed to ignite the way his anti-Obama doc did. It opened in 13th place to $2.3 million from 1,005 theaters after failing to galvanize its target audience — the president's supporters. By way of comparison, Fahrenheit 9/11 debuted to a record-breaking $24 million from 868 theaters in summer 2004 by appealing to detractors of then-Republican President George W. Bush, who were looking for a reason to feel pumped up about the upcoming election.

Trump certainly maintains a hard core of support — as evidenced by the three campaign rallies he held this week — but his critics are even more vocal. And that may have played a key role in the movie's reception. 

"When the pendulum swings to the left, right-wing propaganda has a difficult time gathering an audience. The same can also be true of the reverse scenario," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. "With the pitchforks and torches pointed directly at Trump right now, a pro-Trump cinematic experience doesn't have much box-office bite."

While D'Souza's latest film posted a solid opening for a documentary, Death of a Nation — a virulent attack on the Democratic Party — nevertheless marks the lowest nationwide start among D'Souza's four films.

For example, in summer 2016, D'Souza's Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party earned $4 million when it expanded nationwide in its second weekend into a total of 1,217 cinemas. D'Souza and his go-to distributor, Quality Flix, opened that film on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.

Death of a Nation is D'Souza's first doc to open nationwide without first launching in a select few theaters so as to build word-of-mouth without having to wage an expensive marketing campaign.

The film, though, did drum up some high-profile advance publicity and hardly lacked for support among the highest levels of the current D.C. establishment. While President Trump has yet to opine publicly on the doc, his son, Donald Trump Jr., co-hosted the film's Washington, D.C., premiere and tweeted the film's trailer to his some 2.3 million Twitter followers. 

At the premiere, D'Souza — whom President Trump pardoned earlier this year after D'Souza pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws — told The Washington Post, "I would love to reach the middle-of-the-road guy, the guy on the fence. But I also am realistic enough to recognize that it's going to be predominantly Republicans and conservatives who come to the film."

That appears to have been the case, but they just didn't come out in the numbers that greeted D'Souza's previous films. Death of a Nation did best in conservative strongholds, while being spurned by locales including New York City and San Francisco, and a large chunk of Los Angeles.

Usually, New York City cinemas such as the AMC Empire or Regal Union Square are among a film's top-grossing locations. Ditto for AMC's Century City, Burbank and Universal City locations in Los Angeles. That's not the case with Death of a Nation. The only one of those four theaters that even made it onto the film's top 20 list was AMC Burbank at No. 13.

Orange County led the list of film's top 20 theaters, according to those with access to grosses, followed by Honolulu; Atlanta; Greenville, N.C.; Phoenix; Plano, Texas; Riverside, Calif.; Dallas; Seattle suburbs; Sacramento; San Antonio; Simi Valley, Calif.; Tampa; Houston and Spokane, among other locales. Not one theater in the top 20 was in New York City.

Death of a Nation pulled in big numbers in many of the above markets, however. Tampa, for example, over-indexed by 84 percent. Orlando wasn't far behind at 70 percent, while Phoenix over-indexed by 64 percent.

Conversely, New York City under-indexed by 50 percent.

Death of a Nation has been ravaged by critics, and presently sports a 0 score on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences, however, bestowed the doc with an A CinemaScore after the filmmakers paid CinemaScore to survey the film (CinemaScore surveys a film automatically only if it is playing in a certain number of locations).

Going forward, Death of a Nation no doubt hopes to ride the wave of success enjoyed by other documentaries at the 2018 summer box office, including Focus Features' Fred Rogers doc Won't You Be My Neighbor, which has now earned a stellar $21 million, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic RBG, and, more recently, Neon's Three Identical Strangers.

In its sixth weekend, Three Identical Strangers — chronicling the harrowing tale of three adopted triplets who were part of a sociological experiment — earned $1 million from 405 locations for a per-theater average of $2,602, ahead of Death of a Nation's opening-weekend screen average ($2,313).

"When Obama was running things — and the heir apparent was Hillary Clinton — D'Souza's flag was flying high," says Bock. "That's not the case at this moment in time."