Former Lehman banker Ami Horowitz and filmmaker Michael Moore have a fair amount in common. They share the same film sales agent. They both spend time in the Bromley, a 23-story condominium on Manhattan's Upper West Side. They both produce documentaries.
In fact, Horowitz spent the last two years producing a Moore-style documentary (down to its partially homophonic name), complete with cornered interviewees dodging cameras and questions, on the darker side of the United Nations. Horowitz has grand ambitions for the project ("I expect this film to break the top 10 documentaries of all time," he wrote in an email). But -- and here lies a big difference between the men -- he hasn't landed a screening at a major film festival. In the last year, U.N. Me has been submitted to and rejected by 22 festivals. The few distribution offers coming in are on the small side.
Horowitz believes that taking aim at a sacred cow has made the movie untouchable -- "neo-con bullshit," he claims one festival programmer called it. So, he's trying to raise another $2 million (the cost of producing the film) to release and market it himself--by reaching out to the estimated 50 million members of the Christian Evangelical movement in the U.S. He enlisted the help of conservative evangelical leaders Gary Bauer and John Hagee, and plans to market his film like a political campaign.
The potential payoff is becoming a political version of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, with grassroots support that translates into ticket and DVD sales. The huge risk is the chance his film will get labeled as evangelical political fodder, and entirely written off.
Horowitz came into the project with no film experience. He spent 13 years as a banker for Lehman Brothers then raised money for private equity, writing for the National Review and the Weekly Standard on the side. In early 2006, while watching Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, he got the idea for his own film -- a lighting-bolt epiphany, he says--and managed to enlist Doug Abel, an editor on Errol Morris' The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara and Bob Richman, a cinematographer for Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, whom he cold-called.
"I made a list of the best documentaries that I have ever seen and hired the guys who made them," he said.
Private screenings for director Ron Silver, former C.I.A. director James Woolsey, and Mary Cheney made them fans of the film, Horowitz says. Woolsey sits on Horowitz's board of advisers, along with former congressman and Bob Dole running mate Jack Kemp. "If you're not willing to show critical film work of institutions that fall short of their standards, it's hard to improve them, " Woolsey says.
U.N. Me also got a nod from Dave Mustaine, frontman for the heavy metal band Megadeth, who calls it a "Fahrenheit 9/11 for the U.N." (The band's song "United Abominations," an anti-U.N. anthem, is featured in the film.)
And of course, it has the support of Bauer, a 2004 Republican candidate for president and president of the conservative organization American Values, who says that evangelicals believe the U.N. has taken a disproportionately hardliner stance against Israel. "From a faith standpoint, most Christians will site the verse in the bible [Genesis] in which God says he who blesses Israel I will bless too, he who curses Israel, I will curse," Bauer says.
The U.N. is also featured as a body of evil in the bestselling end-of-days book series Left Behind, in which a U.N.-like organization is the front for operations of the anti-Christ.
Horowitz himself doesn't believe in this extreme view and dismisses it as "kooky." But faith-based outreach and marketing has recently proved to be a successful way to stand out in a saturated and struggling film market.
The self-funded Passion of the Christ brought in $611 million worldwide and counting, in part thanks to Christian groups such as Campus Crusade and Focus on the Family sponsoring screenings. Religious websites like ShareTheLife.com and TheLife.com heavily promoted and discussed it, and called on Christians to do so too.
Kirk Cameron's movie about faith and marriage, Fireproof, produced in conjunction with a Baptist church in Georgia for $500,000, grossed more than $30 million since its September 26 release. Its pre-sale tickets on Fandango beat out the opening of Shia LaBeouf's $80 million thriller Eagle Eye. Last summer's pro-life independent feature Bella, made for $3.3 million, earned over $9.5 million. Facing The Giants, the story of a football coach whose faith is tested, produced for $100,000 has grossed over $10 million.
Horowitz expects U.N. Me to gross $10 million to $15 million. One challenge is that the market for documentaries is tiny. (They account for 1 percent of U.S. box office revenues.) Moore's movies Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko have grossed a combined $316 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. But more the norm is the 2007 Oscar-winner Taxi to the Dark Side, which was produced for $1 million and made just $275,000.
And Horowitz's marketing strategy is drawing concern from people who originally cooperated with the film.
"I don't think inflaming the Christian Right is the best way to bring about reform, unless he's trying to take [the U.N.] down," says Jody Williams, a former U.N. aid worker and 1997 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in landmine causes, who is featured in the film. "It's going to peg the film as an evangelical film and it's not. He could shoot himself in the foot. A lot of people do agree with him. Christ, I'm on the left. I think he
should find people on all walks of life who support him because they do."