After the Houston opening, the Hollywood Reporter ran an exclusive on “2016’s” surprisingly strong box-office haul ($31,750) there. Soon, Banister had the filmmakers talking to media in Washington, generating a half-dozen headlines about the film, which had the tag line “Love him or hate him, you don’t know him” and argued that Obama harbored anti-colonialist views passed down from the Kenyan father he hardly knew.
“Each market was a make or break for us,” Sullivan said in an e-mail. “As the film gained momentum, they turned their attention towards national media helping us get coverage across the spectrum.”
By August, “2016” was expanded to more than 100 theaters and eventually rolled out to more than 1,000. Banister and her team pitched the film as an unexpected box-office breakout to media outlets across the country. More press, more interest.
“I had my own cousin telling me, ‘You know that film ‘2016’? We’ve got to go see this film,’ ” Banister says proudly.
Mainstream and Hollywood-trade reviews panned it as psycho-political propaganda. (“A cavalcade of conspiracy theories,” wrote a Daily Variety critic.) Conservative-leaning outlets hailed it as a revelation. (“A cautionary tale,” declared the Washington Times.)
“There is ideological bias, and it does affect some news coverage. We understand that. We can deal with that,” Shirley says. “What we can’t put up with is disinformation. Our job is to educate and help our clients educate about what they believe.”
There have been more than 2,000 mentions of the anti-Obama documentary in the news media. It became the second-highest grossing political documentary in recent history — earning $33.5 million on a production budget of $2.5 million, behind Michael Moore’s record-breaking “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Yet some of the most effective work by Shirley & Banister has been for clients angered by the Republican establishment. The firm worked with groups opposing Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, deeming her too moderate and not qualified. Miers’s name was withdrawn amid backlash.
And when the upstart tea party emerged in 2010 as a political force, it was a natural fit.
“We needed to hire a firm to help us get onto TV shows and not just do TV shows, but to do press releases,” says Tea Party Patriots founder Jenny Beth Martin, who lives in Georgia and knew no one in national politics 21
2 years ago.
“She’s a consummate networker,” Martin says of Banister. “I trust her to keep things in confidence and give me advice when I need it.”
In April, even before the Internal Revenue Service scandal broke alleging the agency had targeted conservatives by searching for groups with the words “tea party” and “patriots” in their name, Shirley & Banister got the Tea Party Patriots mentioned 30 times in news accounts and helped craft a press release that read, “Tea Party Patriots to Stage ‘Intervention’ at Senator’s State Offices,” referring to a protest against the efforts of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to forge a compromise on immigration reform.
Shirley describes the firm’s relationship with the GOP as “like operating in different parts of the jungle. We’re in parallel universes. There is some overlap, but to the extent that we do have a relationship, it’s like the Hatfields and McCoys,” he says through laughter.
He latches on to a different analogy: “Cold War. We’re West, and they’re East.”
He immediately takes it back. “Maybe that’s making it too warm.”