By Grady Smith
Updated August 28, 2012 at 09:49 PM EDT

Rocky Mountain Pictures’ conservative documentary 2016: Obama’s America made its mark at the box office last weekend, earning $6.5 million from 1,091 theaters — substantially more than the three studio-distributed newcomers Premium Rush, Hit and Run, and The Apparition.

The independent anti-Obama polemic, co-produced and co-directed by Dinesh D’Souza, a former Ronald Reagan policy advisor and current president of The King’s College in New York City, has earned $9.4 million since its debut seven weeks ago. Over the weekend, 2016 passed the 2008 Ben Stein film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed to become the highest grossing conservative documentary of all time. And it’s box office run is far from over.

Of course, 2016 (which EW critic Owen Gleiberman gave an “F” grade in a review that will be posted soon) has a long way to go before it can even come close to comparing to Michael Moore’s high-profile anti-George W. Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which grossed $119.2 million in 2004, and it’s likely that 2016 will never climb that high. Yet comparing the two pictures is somewhat apples and oranges. Fahrenheit 9/11 came from an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, debuted in a big 868 theaters, and enjoyed a promotional push from major studio distributor Lionsgate. 2016‘s road to box office viability has been a decidedly more under-the-radar, grassroots effort.

EW spoke with John Sullivan, who co-directed and co-produced the film with D’Souza, about 2016‘s unconventional production, marketing, and release strategy. Here’s a brief overview of the film’s progression:

First, it got made

“It was self-financed,” Sullivan says of the $2.5 million production, which he explains was not financed by any presidential candidate or PAC. “We raised the money and did all that.” Sullivan says that 2016‘s “broad base of investors,” included “business democrats and republicans… people who were very interested in the subject matter,” and that no corporation funded the film. “There’s no grand investor conspiracy here,” he says.

Next, it found a distributor

Rocky Mountain Pictures, a Salt Lake City-based studio that formerly found success with Christian missionary film End of the Spear, which grossed $12 million in 2006, agreed to distribute 2016. Sullivan, D’Souza, and their team would still handle marketing for the film, but Rocky Mountain Pictures helped initiate deals to play 2016 in theaters across the country. It’s already turning out well for the distributor. By the end of the week, 2016 will pass Spear to become Rocky Mountain Pictures’ most successful feature ever — far outgrossing their Ayn Rand adaptation Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, which fizzled with $4.6 million last year.

It skipped New York and L.A. premieres…

2016 premiered in just one theater in Houston on July 13, where it earned $31,610 in its first weekend. “There are a lot of big cities that are not [for] your typical L.A., New York, Chicago releases,” says Sullivan. “I call this a reverse platform release.” The film built buzz starting in America’s heartland and worked its way to the more media-inundated big cities.

Then, it expanded into target-rich areas…

After a few weeks in Houston, “we did go into more target-rich environments,” says Sullivan. The filmmakers took the doc to Nashville and Anchorage, then South Carolina, Montana (producer Gerald Molen’s home state) and Louisiana. Still, they didn’t stick exclusively to red states. “We had some places in California that went really strong,” says Sullivan, and for the past three weeks, the film has posted hefty numbers in New York City. Last weekend, the film played in 49 of 50 states — everywhere except Vermont.

2016 relied on radio promotion. Yes, the radio…

How did the filmmakers decide where to take the film? A lot depended on potential radio coverage. “I think one of the key things we’ve done is we’ve partnered with radio show talk shows, knowing that that’s where the political audience lives,” says Sullivan. Well-known conservative talk radio host Michael Berry helped the film garner publicity in both Houston and Nashville. “We’ll do premieres for his radio listeners usually about a week to a night before the film hits,” says Sullivan, “so word of mouth gets out through the community.”

Soon after breaking out, a national ad campaign began…

Two weeks ago, as the film started gaining momentum, its national ad campaign launched. Filmmakers purchased advertising spots on A&E, Discovery, Fox News, Fox Business, and MSNBC, and they’re hoping to reach HGTV, Food Network, and more cable nets (including CNN) in the next few frames. Though Sullivan did not disclose the film’s marketing costs, D’Souza has said that they total about $7.5 million.

So far, the film is mainly driven by word-of-mouth.

All the publicity in the world can’t create a true groundswell of moviegoing fervor — every once in a while, people whip themselves into a frenzy that creates a box office phenomenon. (See: The Blair Witch Project) And whether or not you agree with all the various feelings toward 2016, people — a lot of people — are talking about it, which seems to be fostering a true curiosity around the project. Sullivan is confident that the film is not just reaching faithful conservatives. “Independents are really engaged in this movie,” he says. “[It’s] not just something in the Fox News crowd.” While it’s hard to say to what extent that statement is true, 2016 does seem to have entered the national zeitgeist.

So, where does the documentary go from here?

In all likelihood, it will keep thriving at the box office — it may even hit number one this weekend.

On August 31 (this Friday), 2016 will expand once again, from 1,091 theaters into about 2,000 locations — 1,600 are already confirmed — which will increase its accessibility for much of the country. The doc will even begin playing in its first theater in Vermont.

On top of that, this week’s Republican National Convention, which kicks off tonight in Tampa (where the filmmakers are currently promoting the picture), will likely rally conservatives, and with a few well-placed ads during Convention coverage, a slew of uninitiated viewers may get turned onto the film’s existence. Sullivan explains that they plan on advertising during the Democratic National Convention as well.

Perhaps most encouraging for 2016’s box office haul, though, is the fact that its primary audience is decidedly older — Sullivan estimates the median age is about 45. As Meryl Streep’s drama Hope Springs is currently proving with its slim week-to-week drops at the box office, older moviegoers don’t tend to rush out to the theater on opening weekend the way teens might for a horror title like The Devil Inside, which plummeted 76 percent in its second frame. Older patrons typically wait a bit longer to hear some word-of-mouth before venturing to the theater.

Thus, after two weeks of heavy chatter (much of which questions the film’s fact-checking), audiences are increasingly aware of the film, and thanks to 2016‘s soon-to-be even heftier theater count, it’s likely that many more viewers will head out to see it this weekend — and in the weeks to come.

Facing weak competition from newcomers Lawless, The Possession, and Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure, the documentary has a solid shot at reaching the top of the box office; The Possession has the best chance at beating it out for number one.

Have you seen the film? Do you think 2016 is just kicking off its box office campaign or will its success be short-lived?

For more box office coverage, follow me on Twitter: Follow @EWGradySmith

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