Why No Hollywood Studio Wants to Touch the Trump Biopic (2024)

Politics

By Mary Harris

Why No Hollywood Studio Wants to Touch the Trump Biopic (1)

Jake Lahut is a political reporter over at the Daily Beast. When he first heard about The Apprentice, the new biopic about Donald Trump, it was a rumor—something he wasn’t sure he was going to be hearing that much more about.“It was presented to me, by the Trump campaign, as an inconvenience,” Lahut said. Over the past few months, he has learned a lot more about this movie. It has a rising young director, Ali Abbasi. Its stars are from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and prestige television. Succession’s Jeremy Strong plays Donald Trump’s mentor, mob lawyer Roy Cohn. In this movie, you see, it’s Trump who is the Apprentice.

“The movie’s basic premise is but for Roy Cohn, Donald Trump would not be this way,” Lahut said. “It’s basically how Trump gets a taste of power and learns how you can get your way in 1970s, 1980s New York through lying, bluster, and below-the-belt tactics.”

Then, last month, came the Cannes Film Festival, where the film debuted.This is when Lahut knew The Apprentice was about to be unavoidable.People who saw it reported a rape scene between Trump and his ex-wife Ivana, also gory scenes of liposuction and a scalp reduction surgery for Trump’s bald spot.After the screening, attorneys for Donald Trump sent a cease-and-desist letter to the movie’s producers, looking to block its distribution. But the filmmakers remained bullish. They invited Trump to watch the film with them. They said they didn’t think he’d dislike the movie, actually.

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So far, though, no U.S. company seems willing to take a risk here, which is raising a whole lot of questions.Plenty of other countries will be able to see the film, but it’s not yet coming to America. On a recent episode of What Next, we dug into what’s keeping The Apprentice out of theaters. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Do we know where The Apprentice as a movie came from?

Jake Lahut: This goes all the way back to 2018, when Gabe Sherman had gotten a deal for the screenplay. He’d done a lot of Trump World reporting for Vanity Fair; a lot of stuff on Fox News; and then, especially after his biography of Roger Ailes came out, a lot about the relationship between Trump and Fox News. So, it sounds like this thing is basically in some version of on the shelf in production—talks but not quite there yet. And then, it really starts to pick up momentum when the director, Ali Abbasi, is reported to be joining.

Abbasi has this reputation as a new age filmmaker who is not afraid to take some big swings. The only other people that might have been comparable in this territory would have been the Safdie brothers, who made Uncut Gems. A more intense style of directing and pacing with the storytelling, and that made people excited.

Who is paying for this movie?

That’s where it gets a little complicated.

Here’s why. The Apprentice was produced by a company called Kinematics. Kinematics’ founder and CEO is a filmmaker named Mark Rapaport. And Mark Rapaport is the son-in-law of billionaire Dan Snyder. You may know Snyder. He’s the reviled former owner of the Washington football team, the Commanders. His leadership was plagued by accusations of sexual misconduct and financial mismanagement, until he finally sold the team in 2023.He’s also a conservative. And while his son-in-law runs Kinematics, Snyder has a financial stake in the company and was, somewhat ironically, a major investor in The Apprentice.

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The belief from the movie’s camp was that there wasn’t going to be a problem here, that there was enough of a wall between Snyder and his son-in-law. Plus, Dan Snyder had been sailing off into the sunset a little bit. He had been rumored to have been living in London. It didn’t seem like he was trying to be a big-time player in American politics. The assumption was that the son-in-law would be able to see this thing through. There would be no meddling from Dan Snyder.

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So, The Apprentice premieres at Cannes. It was received well. Typically, when a movie is received well at Cannes, I imagine getting a distribution deal is pretty easy.

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Oh yeah. It gets nominated for that Palme d’Or prize, which is the best thing you can throw on a movie poster, right? That signals to the well-informed moviegoing public that this thing has gotten a lot of buzz and it’s considered to be really good. The assumption from both the Trump people and the people on the industry side was that this movie seemed like an ideal candidate for a Netflix or an Amazon deal with maybe limited theater release, straight to streaming. That’s the big payout. And it would be this very, very heavily talked about thing whenever it were to come out before the election.

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But then we get to a week after Cannes, two weeks after Cannes, three weeks after Cannes, a month after Cannes, and there’s no announcement of a U.S. release. But you are getting news that begins to trickle in over these other distribution deals in Western Europe. And that’s when the gears start turning for some people. Like, OK, wait a minute. Why wouldn’t this have an American partner when obviously it’s about a former American president, and this is a uniquely American story. What’s going on there?

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The initial reporting about what’s happening with this movie was that Hollywood was scared of releasing The Apprentice, and I don’t get that because Hollywood likes making money, and this seems like something that would. So, can you explain what that fear is potentially about?

The fear is less about the revenue for the movie in the short term, which could be good. But somebody has got to tack their company’s name onto this thing for distribution. The best corollary for this would be how businesses reacted in 2017 and early in Trump’s first term to him simply tweeting about them. There was all this consternation that if you’re Ford or some big American business, Trump could send an angry tweet about you in the wee hours of the morning or the middle of the day, whenever, and that could wreak havoc on your business in a number of ways. It could have a short-term impact on the stock price. It could turn conservative customers against you.

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Just think about what happened with Bud Light when they had a trans influencer repping for them.

Oh, yeah. That boycott lingered for a while and had a material impact on Budweiser’s business. That’s a great example. I wish I could be privy to these conversations, but this is the kind of chilling effect. It’s not just about the fall movie season. If he’s back in the white House for the next four years, how badly could this guy mess with our business?

Then, last Sunday, there were some reports that this film was close to a distribution deal, with a company called Briarcliff. But as soon as that started happening, you began reporting that actually it may be that no deal could go through at all. Can you explain?

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This is where it gets really tricky because, again, the assumption at the outset was that the Kinematics production company was going to be solidly behind this thing and that Mark Rapaport, the son-in-law of Dan Snyder, was not going to have any issues from his father-in-law. The problem is that even though Dan Snyder wasn’t involved in the production of the film, his financial stake in Kinematics gives him this de facto veto power over a U.S. distribution deal. That’s why the company has no problem inking deals all over Western Europe, Canada, etc.

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But when it comes to the U.S., that’s where Dan Snyder seems to have drawn this line. He wanted a recut of the movie before Cannes. He clearly has some major qualms with how this movie went down. And then, Kinematics gets close to this deal with Briarcliff, which does on paper seems like an ideal home for this thing.

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But then when Snyder comes into the picture, functionally how it works is he does need to sign off on the financials of a distribution deal because of his financial stake in Kinematics via the son-in-law. So that’s where the hang-up comes. And that’s why Snyder couldn’t really do anything about the actual making of the movie. He couldn’t do anything before Cannes about the movie, but for the movie to land in theaters, he can, by virtue of the size of his financial stake in that company, say, “No, not doing it.”

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Nobody around the Trump campaign thinks that Dan Snyder is one of the important billionaires in this cycle. But, for someone like Snyder, if he wants to find another foothold in American power in a second Trump presidency, that’s where you start to see the incentives get a little wacky here, because it’s in his financial interest for this movie to make money. Snyder seemingly doesn’t care about any short-term monetary loss and is just going out on his own to do Trump a solid here.

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I had this conversation with a Trump World operative who said something to the effect of, “Look, dude, this isn’t Barbenheimer.” And their point was: In 2024, can a movie have the type of cultural impact that it once did 15 or 20 years ago?

So, why not just let it out there?

That’s where the tension within Trump World reveals itself. On the one hand, these folks are saying, “This movie, it’s going to be a nothing burger. The American people already know everything there is to know about Donald Trump. That’s not going to change their opinion. This election is about the economy, immigration, yada, yada.” However, I’m also talking to these folks under the condition of anonymity because they know that if the boss sees them talking about this movie, that’s going to cause a problem for them. And this movie, by virtue of depicting Trump’s early years, by virtue of having Roy Cohn as a main character, it’s a problem for them. They don’t want this to be a discussion. They don’t want people asking Trump about it. And as much as they may protest about this movie not being able to have some sort of singular, splashy influence, they also seem to see that the ingredients are here for this thing to snowball, and for this to become its own storyline in the 2024 election.

And they’re scared of it.

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There’s something more immediate and more emotional that just cuts through to people when it’s told in that format, compared with, like, a CNBC documentary about Trump’s bankruptcies. Those just don’t hit the same. There was this Andrew Breitbart quote that Steve Bannon loved to bring up: “Politics is downstream of culture.” What that basically means is that the people who are really paying attention to the beat by beat of the election, that’s a small group, that’s not the whole electorate. What does affect the whole electorate are unique factors about American culture that can make something snowball into a bigger phenomenon than it initially was.

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