Why the Right Fails to Change Culture
“We don’t do videos.”
No one in conservative circles denies we are getting crushed in the culture wars. Yes, key conservatives have been banned from major social media. Yes, Facebook, Twitter, Google are biased. But the broader question should be, “Why were conservatives relegated to predominantly social media in the first place?” Why are there virtually no conservative television shows? Why is Fox (other than One America News Network—which has trouble getting in major delivery packages) the only “conservative” news network, and even then, one whose “conservatism” is fading rapidly? Why are there no conservative graphic novels?
Of course, Andrew Breitbart was the John the Baptist of this element of our culture. The creation of (at first) Drudge Report, then later Breitbart News, was essential to broadening a conservative alternative. But it wasn’t nearly sufficient.
So what has been the problem? Since A Patriot’s History of the United States came in 2004, I have been working to move that story into video form, which brought me into contact with Andrew, then, through Andrew, to a host of other Hollywood Conservatives. Yes, there are quite a few. One well-known actor told me, “When you go on a production site, at lunch time all the trucks where the stage construction workers and set designers are having lunch have Rush Limbaugh on. But if the director comes by, they turn it down.” Another director told me of a conversation two of his producer friends had with an Amazon Prime executive as they pitched their children’s show. “We don’t take material from white males,” they were instructed. “The era of Aryan supremacy is dead.” Realize these two men had several successes in the field already, and possessed a track record of profits.
Without turning into a “poor me” sob story, I can only report from my own efforts. I think however, they are quite representative of the experiences of others.
When I first began taking the idea of turning Patriot’s History into video form to conservative organizations in 2005, I thought the rationale was obvious. Video was the future for young people, who have essentially stopped reading. Virtually all new learning is occurring on phones and digital devices, not from books. My own theory was that younger people could be hooked on a short video (under four minutes), but that anything longer would, at least initially, turn them off. However, if captivated by a short video, kids will watch a longer (15 minute) video, and if that satisfies then, they will log into one hour videos or longer.
Prager U. caught onto the first part of my formula relatively quickly. Their four-minute videos are masterpieces of hard-hitting, well-scripted commentary with a minimum of production added. Prager’s reach is immense. I have done two videos for Prager U. (“America’s Socialist Origins” and “Religious Toleration”) and each has had over a million views. Bigger name personalities than I, such as Ben Shapiro, can draw over five times that many views.
Prager’s work is incredible and provides key issue discussions for the “skulls full of mush” who are today’s youth. It does suffer, however, from two weaknesses. First, because the videos draw from diverse conservative voices who in general support each other’s fundamental assumptions, the gaps between each are enormous and the small differences between, say, a monetarist and an Art Laffer Trump supporter can be confusing to the point of fraying all commonalities. This is why college classes are usually taught by one professor, and why team teaching tends to break down without rigid control.
The other weakness of Prager U. videos is that they are, by design, focused on a niche market, namely those people interested in short takes on a particular issue. Again, without minimizing in the least the tremendous value of addressing this niche market, it does not take the place of thousands of hours of more subtle brainwashing on the part of what passes for “entertainment.” And it’s not just movies and television, but music and graphic novels as well.
Indeed, I would argue that the single most cost-efficient vehicle for conservatives is graphic novels, because for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, one can fund the storyboard for a movie. Everything from “Watchmen” to “300" came from graphic novels, because they present a visual story for a producer and director -- and they have become easy sources for movies. By financing three to four solid (and popular) graphic novels, conservative money-men would be financing the next generation of film as well.
But beyond that, conservatives must fight their way back into Hollywood. This is where the real struggle begins. As I began my “tour” of conservative think tanks, I was asking for what (in Hollywood terms) was a catering budget—about $450,000 per episode to make a six-hour series based on A Patriot’s History. The intent was to have the impact of Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” series from the 1970s—but with history instead of economics—but with a newer, higher production level product that would be similar to the “Sons of Liberty” or “John Adams,” both of which were considered successes. I had enlisted solid Hollywood talent, from a director who had worked with Tom Selleck and Jon Voight, to the top cameramen in the industry, to casting editors. All were willing to work below scale to meet the budget. Grammy winning Christian artist Michael W. Smith had agreed to provide what turned out to be a powerful and moving score.
I was not surprised at the first response from Heritage Foundation, which was simply, “We don’t do videos.” This pretty much ended all discussion. “What do you fund?” I asked. “We fund panel discussions, speakers, white papers.” “Do you realize,” I countered, “that none of those will reach youths, let alone significantly influence them?” I received a blank stare. Finally, the person I spoke with said again, “Well, we just don’t do videos.” Going in, I had expected that we would not meet with success immediately, but that at last one of the conservative organizations would understand that the print medium and speakers’ series were leaving them behind.
Was I wrong.
Over the next several years, I met with virtually all of the conservative organizations and think tanks. Almost to a word, they repeated the “We-don’t-do-video” response I got at Heritage. By the time I had made the rounds (over several years), I learned that Heritage had in fact started a web-based side that included video, but it still was far from the “John Adams” level of impacting youth. My final, most depressing, meeting, was with the head of student outreach for the Koch Brothers foundation. Once again, I laid out the numbers, the challenge, and our approach. Once again, I heard, “Koch doesn’t do videos.” Again I asked what they did. “Well we are trying to start chapters on every university to bring in speakers like Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro.” “OK,” I replied, “have you watched the news in the past two years? Do you realize that many colleges already won’t even let them speak, or demand such outrageous security deposits that they are effectively banned? Do you know that a Christian college, Grand Canyon College in Phoenix, cancelled Shapiro because of complaints by leftists?” (Later they reversed course on this and he appeared). In exasperation, I asked, “Do you realize that in five years you may not be able to book a conservative on any major campus?” His answer shocked me. “I think you’re right.”
“SO?” I thought I had won.
“We just talked about this at a board meeting,” he said, almost sighing in resignation. “We don’t do videos.”
My little experiences are nothing compared to those in Hollywood who are conservative directors and producers, some of them B-list, some A-list. One acquaintance had five different film projects fail to get sufficient investment to make, all in a period of a few years. He is more or less out of the industry now. In 2016, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks—an Academy Award winning director and one of the most bankable stars in the business—told a Sundance audience that “Sully” was turned down by every studio until Ratpack Dune (with Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin) finally funded it. “Sully” was hardly a “conservative” movie. It’s main values were cooperation, heroism, and humility.
So what’s the problem? One of the biggest problems is that “our” monied men see the world in vastly different terms than those on the left with money. Lefitsts are willing to hurl money into project after project, hoping for a profit, but understanding that even if their films don’t make a penny, sooner or later kids watch them. There were no fewer than five anti-Iraq war movies that failed to recover their budgets (in real terms, after accounting for advertising). Yet they kept coming out. In the space of five years, we have had an ongoing series (“Madame Secretary”) offering a Hillary stand-in; had a series slamming Fox’s Roger Ailes; had “The Circus” on the 2016 campaign featuring anti-Trump zealots as “journalists”; “The Post,” where heroic reporters battle Richard Nixon; and had a movie on a villainous Dick Cheney. Yet it is something of a myth that conservative movies don’t sell: “Darkest Hour” grossed $150 million worldwide on a $30 million budget; a badly flawed “Dunkirk” still managed three Academy Awards and a worldwide gross of $526 million, and “Chernobyl,” the 2019 miniseries, was widely praised despite its clear damning depiction of communism.
While a few of these manage to poke through the rock-hard leftist surface, most simply aren’t made. Consider the fact that not one major film depicting the life and/or challenges of Ronald Reagan has been made. A picture about Ronald Reagan, with Dennis Quaid attached to play Reagan, has languished for over a year. Pretty soon, Quaid will be too old to play the Gipper. At least one other Reagan script, somewhat more imaginary—but positive nonetheless—has yet to gain financial traction. Reagan’s life in Hollywood alone would make terrific storytelling, from the threats to have acid thrown in his face for his role as head of SAG to his epic battles with the communists inside the Screen Actor’s Guild (which he won). But from the filmmakers and financiers in Hollywood? Crickets.
It is time our side gets it. Easy for me to say—I’m not a billionaire. But until a number of people of substance make up their minds that no matter what the cost, we need to take back the culture, they will continue to fight delaying actions at the ballot box.
Larry Schweikart is the co-author of A Patriot’s History of the United States and author of Reagan: The American President. www.wildworldofhistory.com.
Photo Credit: The Hollywood Reporter.