As someone who spends a fair amount of time reading conservative media and a fair amount of time reading about film, I was struck by an odd coincidence last week.
On Jan. 6, both the Weekly Standard and National Review Online published reviews of the new Michael Bay movie about the terrorist attack on America's diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, "13 Hours." Around this time, nationally syndicated radio host Hugh Hewitt mentioned that he had seen it; a few days later, he wrote about it for the Washington Examiner.
Noting the synchronicity (as well as the fact that these conservative outlets were given screening opportunities and review embargoes well ahead of the mainstream press) and mentally filing it away, I thought no more of it. Until a couple of days later, that is, when an advertisement for the film ran during the NFL playoffs.
It didn't jump out at me at first - TV spots for "13 Hours" are more or less ubiquitous right now - until the pull quotes started coming up. "A cinematic masterpiece" raved ... Weekly Standard senior writer and Fox News contributor Steve Hayes? Praise from Hugh Hewitt was also quoted, as were kind words from Fox News' Megyn Kelly. Most movies have these kind of blurbs, of course, but they're sourced to movie critics, not conservative pundits.
Needless to say, this was rather unusual. But it is indicative of the lengths that Paramount is going to in order to reach conservative audiences who might be interested in Bay's new film.
I talked to four people who attended three separate screenings of "13 Hours" last week. All of them are involved in the conservative media (and all asked to talk on background so as not to alienate those who invited them to the screenings), and all told more or less the same story: The audiences were very small and almost uniformly either right-leaning or employed in the conservative media, and few were regular writers about film.
Two of the attendees also noted that the studio was tapping into the evangelical pipeline that has helped make religious features such as "Heaven is for Real," "War Room" and "God's Not Dead" hits at the box office.
The ability to turn out conservative filmgoers is one of the reasons that January and February have become go-to months for medium-budget, patriotism-heavy action flicks. Last year, "American Sniper" rode a best-selling memoir and the direction of one of Hollywood's few outspoken Republicans to a shockingly big $89 million opening weekend and a $350 million domestic haul.
"Act of Valor" - a 2012 movie marketed as starring "active duty U.S. Navy SEALs" - also surprised, grossing twice its budget in its opening weekend and pulling in $70 million domestically in total. Peter Berg's 2013 movie "Lone Survivor" might be the clearest comparison to "13 Hours"; that film grossed $37 million in its first weekend in wide release and $125 million total, domestically.
It makes sense that the studio would want to reach out to this audience: "13 Hours," which I saw earlier this week at a more traditional press screening, is the sort of movie that should appeal to conservatives. A tale of heroism and sacrifice centered on a lingering, controversial terrorist attack that conservatives feel President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have ducked responsibility for, Bay's new film taps into some of the most primal feelings self-identified conservatives hold - and that liberals generally disdain.
As Jonathan Haidt has noted in his Moral Foundations Theory, Republicans consider "Loyalty/Betrayal" - which "underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group" - to be a very important value. Democrats, not so much. This goes a long way to explaining why Benghazi remains a salient issue for Republicans while Democrats have long ago dismissed it: Conservatives can't stomach the idea of brave Americans being left to fight and die because weak-kneed or oblivious bureaucrats refused to send in air support.
And it helps explain why the film - which has been constructed to place great emphasis on the perceived lack of loyalty from the American government for our men on the ground and the betrayal of Libyan forces in Benghazi - is being marketed so aggressively to this cohort.
After all, this is a film that prominently features a shot of a terrorist machine-gunning a still-fluttering American flag to tatters as his cohort ransacks an ambassador's residence. A dollar says your average liberal - not to mention your average film critic - is more likely to snigger at an image that over the top than be moved by it.
That's why it is entirely understandable that the studio is going in such a nontraditional direction. Why screen the movie for left-wing critics like Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, whose readers likely have no interest in the film, only to be rewarded with a snarky, sneering hit piece when you can target friendlier writers whose audiences are excited for it? Why throw a red carpet, celebrity-only premiere in Hollywood when you can pack the home of the Dallas Cowboys with 30,000 viewers who will gush about it to their friends and family?
Hollywood can do business as usual. But "13 Hours" suggests the entertainment industry is responding to the conservative argument that there's an audience that has long felt neglected, and is ready to pay for tickets when they see their values reflected on screen.