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‘The Apprentice’ Can’t Find U.S. Distributor: Is Hollywood Afraid?

‘The Apprentice’ Can’t Find U.S. Distributor: Is Hollywood Afraid?

“I think it’s time to make movies relevant,” said Ali Abbasi to the cheering crowd at the May 20 Cannes premiere of his Donald Trump biopic The Apprentice. “It’s time to make movies political again.”

Hollywood doesn’t seem to be listening. Despite the enthusiastic response to The Apprentice internationally — the film, starring Sebastian Stan as Trump and Succession’s Jeremy Strong as his master-of-the-dark-arts political mentor Roy Cohn, has been sold in nearly every territory — the movie is still struggling to land a U.S. distributor. That’s despite, as Abbasi calls it, this fall’s “promotional event, the U.S. election,” that would seem to provide an ideal launchpad, and plenty of free publicity, for any domestic distributor. 

A U.S. deal for The Apprentice is complicated by the fact that Kinematics, the company backed by pro-Trump billionaire Dan Snyder, put up equity for the film against domestic rights and has to approve any sale. Snyder reportedly hates the film, which includes scenes of Trump abusing amphetamines, getting liposuction and scalp-reduction surgery and, most controversially, one graphic sequence showing him raping his first wife, Ivana. (Ivana made the rape claim during her divorce proceedings with Trump in the early ’90s, but later disavowed her deposed testimony, saying she didn’t mean rape in the “literal or criminal sense.”)

But the fact of the matter is U.S. buyers have been wary of political movies for a while now. If political controversy used to be a recipe for box office success — Michael Moore’s anti-Bush doc Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed $119 million domestically and $222 million worldwide in 2004 — shifts in audience demographics, including a decline in the market for adult-skewing fare post-COVID, have made anything overtly political look like a big financial risk. Adam McKay’s 2018 feature Vice was arguably the last big American political biopic, and, with a $48 million domestic gross against a reported $60 million-plus budget, a major flop.

“I love politics, I love political films,” an equity investor in The Apprentice tells THR, “but from an investment [or] a business point of view, putting your money in a political movie is asking for trouble.” 

As for the international marketplace, thorny topics for the U.S., like Trump, have an easier time finding footing. But localized issues give international distributors pause (e.g. no Brexit movies in Britain), with the pressure coming less from audiences and more from right-wing movements attacking perceived left-wing films since, unlike the U.S., government subsidies are the main source of financing for European movies.

In April, Participant Media, Hollywood’s premier backer of socially conscious films, producer of Oscar winners Spotlight and Judas and the Black Messiah and such docs as An Inconvenient Truth and RBG, shut down altogether. Many studios fear a MAGA-led backlash to movies perceived as too “woke,” which can include anything from having a diverse cast to the mere mention of the LGBTQ+ community. Disney is still smarting from its battle with Gov. Ron DeSantis over its opposition to Florida’s “don’t say gay” laws. In April, after surviving a proxy fight waged by activist shareholders, including Nelson Peltz, Disney CEO Bob Iger said the studio’s primary mission “needs to be to entertain, [not] be agenda-driven.”

“Every corporation in America is terrified of being sued, of being canceled,” contends Mikael Fellenius, CEO of Film i Väst, the state-backed Swedish financier that was an early equity investor in The Apprentice. “The climate has made it much harder to produce political movies there.” 

“The world is more divided now. You’re either left or right, there’s no common ground anymore, not even a shared reality to discuss these issues,” says a producer with knowledge of The Apprentice sales negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If an audience is pro-Trump, they won’t watch an anti-Trump movie, and the other side won’t watch a pro-Trump one.”

“People are even more sensitive now than they’ve ever been to the notion of going out and seeing what could either be, at best, a serious movie or, at worst, a type of movie that a lot of people might severely disagree with,” adds Shawn Robbins, a box office analyst with Box Office Theory.

Instead of courting controversy, as distributors did in the past, these days the best marketing move might be to bury the politics altogether. During the press run for Alex Garland’s Civil War, a dystopian near-future drama set during a conflict involving an authoritarian U.S. government and a series of secessionist movements, distributor A24 was at pains to portray the film as nonpartisan. It paid off, with Civil War earning $68 million domestically from a split of audiences in both red and blue states, and more than $100 million worldwide.

This nonpartisan approach is being fueled by a shift in strategy from the streamers. Political films and documentaries were once considered an asset, particularly for awards season — see Netflix’s acquisition of Roma or The Trial of the Chicago 7 — but now the emphasis is on mainstream content with as broad, and as worldwide, an appeal as possible.

Icarus, the 2017 doc about Russian doping from Bryan Fogel, won best documentary feature at the Academy Awards, netting Netflix one of its first Oscar wins. Fogel directed a follow-up, Icarus: The Aftermath, focused on whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov and Russia’s efforts to discredit him. After receiving positive reviews out of Telluride in 2022, the film still is available for pickup. That same year, Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite debuted The Grab, about powerful nations, among them Saudi Arabia and China, purchasing other countries’ land and resources. The film sat unreleased for two years until, in May, specialty outfit Magnolia picked it up.

Independent film producer Ted Hope, Amazon’s former co-head of movies, is in the process of rolling out Invisible Nation, a doc about democracy in Taiwan directed by his wife, Vanessa Hope. Because distributors don’t want to rankle China, Ted Hope says, the filmmakers have been forced to be creative about getting the film seen, relying on film festivals, screenings held by nonprofits like the Asia Society and academic institutions rather than a major distribution deal. He adds: “The streamers don’t want to touch anything controversial.”

For the documentary, which the indie distributor Abramaorama opened in one theater in NY on May 31 and plans to open in LA on June 20, the Hopes are forgoing global VOD platforms that rely on relationships with China, like Apple and Amazon, and releasing instead on the independent platform Kinema. “If you want to go into China, you can’t show Invisible Nation,” Hope says.

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Hollywood’s own fraught politics have been seen as getting in the way of distribution deals. Union, the doc about the founding and establishing of the Amazon Labor Union and attempts to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Long Island premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival to positive reviews but has yet to land distribution. Multiple sources attribute this at least in part to Hollywood’s own industry halting labor unrest in 2023, a months-long battle between its unions and the studios that still has left the industry reeling. 

The recent departure of Participant Media will only make the landscape harder for filmmakers with political movies, Hope says. Even The New York Times, which produced feature-length offerings, has pulled back its doc efforts. “I once had so many different choices of how I get my movie made or seen,” Hope says. “Now I have to get my camel through the eye of a needle.”

Of course, all of this should be viewed through the lens of the larger economics of the current domestic marketplace, where the box office has been verging on dismal and studios are contending with austerity measures, lay-offs, re-orgs, and M&A activity since the finishing of the two industry halting strikes. Something studio execs are more concerned about than political blowback: The bottom line.

“The market and the ability to make money supersede political concerns,” says one veteran sales agent. “But if you have both? Forget about it.”

Rebecca Keegan contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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