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Jan. 3, 2024, 9 a.m.
Business Models

Conservatives’ “anti-woke” alternative to Disney has arrived

As media grapples with declining advertising revenue, DailyWire+ and Bentkey are betting that loyal, politically engaged subscribers will drive their growth.

As fanfare blares, female sprinters at the starting line suspiciously eye a man in a wig. A hulking, goateed wrestler slams a woman half his size to the mat. An ominous voiceover intones that women’s sports are being “trans-formed.”

No, this isn’t the beginning of a classic cross-dressing comedy. It’s the trailer for “Lady Ballers,” a new right-wing movie that farcically depicts cisgendered men claiming to be women in order to dominate women’s sports.

At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the movie as yet another example of the meme that conservatives only have one joke, repeated ad nauseam, mocking liberal views on gender identity.

But my own research has explored the vast network of conservative comedy that bolsters right-wing political efforts.

Now, in addition to comedy, U.S. conservatives are using action films, dramas, and even kids’ cartoons to build their own alternative entertainment industry, one shielded from the alleged liberal biases of Hollywood.

The most prominent recent efforts are two streaming entertainment platforms from right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro and “Lady Ballers” star Jeremy Boreing.

DailyWire+ offers documentaries, Westerns, and faith-based fantasy series. Its companion streaming platform, Bentkey, which launched in October 2023, specializes in children’s programming.

To be sure, these streamers have miles to go before challenging Netflix and Disney+. But by strategically targeting their politically engaged audiences, the platforms have been successful — and could have more staying power than prior attempts at making music and movies for conservatives.

Swings, misses — and a few hits

U.S. conservatives have successfully launched and steered a number of news outlets. They have a spottier record when it comes to entertainment, whether it’s feature films, pop songs, or kids’ shows.

In 2013, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum became the CEO of EchoLight Studios, which produced several faith-based films in the 2010s. Similarly, the pundit and documentary filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza has had a few modest box office hits centered on right-wing conspiracy theories. These efforts saw limited success because their niche political appeal was mismatched with theatrical movies’ wide distribution.

Other forms of conservative entertainment have briefly gone viral, before all but disappearing — perhaps because they’re too closely aligned with current events to have staying power. Kid Rock’s “We the People” bemoaned COVID-19 restrictions and “Bidenomics,” while Jason Aldean’s “Try That In a Small Town” tried to harness conservative resentment toward Black Lives Matter protests a few years too late.

One notable conservative entertainment hit is the 2023 thriller “The Sound of Freedom.” The movie’s surprise success had as much to do with its subject matter — child trafficking, which is catnip for right-wing conspiracists — as it did with its unique financing. The film’s producer, Angel Studios, used an equity crowdfunding model that gave 100,000 individual investors a say in creative and marketing decisions.

Then “The Sound of Freedom” used a “pay it forward” marketing scheme that encouraged the film’s fans to buy tickets for like-minded friends and family. Although Angel Studios won’t disclose how much revenue “pay it forward” generated, the movie has an overall gross of nearly $250 million against a $14.5 million budget.

“The Sound of Freedom” allowed audiences literally to buy into the film’s success, which its marketing campaign equated with actively rejecting Hollywood’s liberal agenda. A similar dynamic informed the launch — and will likely determine the future — of DailyWire+ and Bentkey.

Packaging conservatism for kids

Shapiro is among the most vocal backers of Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. Both are deeply hostile to LGBTQ+ rights. They’ve also routinely claimed that supporters of “woke gender ideology” like Disney are “grooming” children.

In late 2022, DailyWire+ surpassed 1 million subscribers by releasing programming that stoked these culture war concerns. Among the platform’s hits were right-wing commentator Matt Walsh’s anti-trans documentary “What Is A Woman?” and PragerU’s video shorts that advocate for conservative pet issues through sober, educational-sounding explainers. Then, of course, there are comedies like “Lady Ballers.”

Boreing has explicitly highlighted the disconnect between viewers’ politics and their entertainment options.

“[Americans are] tired of giving their money to woke media companies who want to indoctrinate their children with radical race and gender theory,” he told The Washington Post ahead of Bentkey’s recent launch.

Bentkey strives to directly counterprogram Disney with its own conservative family programming. “Chip Chilla,” for instance, is a fairly transparent rip-off of the Disney+-distributed hit “Bluey,” a cartoon about the hijinks of a family of Australian dogs.

The creators of “Chip Chilla” include “Saturday Night Live” alumnus-turned-anti-vaxxer Rob Schneider and Ethan Nicolle, the former creative director of the right-wing satire website The Babylon Bee.

The platform also aims to challenge Disney’s dominance in the princess realm. Bentkey’s forthcoming fantasy film “Snow White and The Evil Queen” stars the popular conservative YouTuber Brett Cooper and purports to emphasize the fairy tale’s traditional social values.

If politics is downstream from culture…

As media grapples with declining advertising revenue, DailyWire+ and Bentkey are betting that loyal, politically engaged subscribers will drive their growth.

Shapiro’s strategy aligns with that of X, which is backing into a subscription model as chairman Elon Musk’s impulsive tweets alienate advertisers.

In a move away from the ad-supported YouTube, Shapiro struck a deal with Musk for X to host The Daily Wire’s podcasts. Like Shapiro, Musk is a supporter of DeSantis, with X — then known as Twitter — infamously hosting the candidate’s disastrous campaign launch in May 2023.

Backed by this confluence of powerful right-wing voices, conservative entertainment can engage the Republican electorate in new ways. Liberals would do well not to dismiss its potentially galvanizing effects before the 2024 election.

The late right-wing muckraker Andrew Breitbart — a mentor of Shapiro — famously asserted that politics is downstream from culture.

If this is, in fact, the case, slapstick comedy and children’s animation just might buoy the next wave of conservative activism.

Nick Marx is an associate professor of film and media studies at Colorado State University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.The Conversation

POSTED     Jan. 3, 2024, 9 a.m.
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