Borat can't save us from Trump – but he may be the way forward for film

Catherine Shoard
·6 min read

Sacha Baron Cohen’s aim in releasing his Borat sequel less than a fortnight before the US presidential election is explicit: to influence its outcome by causing maximum embarrassment to the current administration and its allies.

America under a second Trump term, said Baron Cohen last week, would likely “become a democracy in name only”. His film finishes by urging viewers to vote, and leaves them in little doubt for whom.

Yet any film’s ability to swing such results has long been reckoned marginal, depending as it does on undecided voters also being among the converted to whom the movie is preaching.

Related: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm review – cinema's top troll goes baiting in Trump's US

In a close race, many film-makers still calculate that’s a chance worth taking; also released on Friday was Totally Under Control, Alex Gibney’s damning exposé of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic.

Whether the timing of such films is primarily about campaigning or capitalisation, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has fast become this autumn’s must-see movie.

A New Yorker takes a free face mask from a lifesized poster of Sacha Baron Cohen as part of a promotional stunt for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
A New Yorker takes a free face mask from a lifesized poster of Sacha Baron Cohen as part of a promotional stunt for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Photograph: Erik Pendzich/Rex/Shutterstock

Media coverage of its climactic sting, in which Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani reaches into his trousers in a hotel bedroom with the actor playing Borat’s daughter, has, says Steven Gaydos, Variety’s executive vice president of content, translated into “a billion dollars’ worth of free publicity”.

The producers’ outlay was already relatively low, says Gaydos, thanks to a reliance on social media marketing – and the avoidance of a theatrical release. By going straight to Amazon Prime Video, the film has forgone the chance to be seen on the big screen in exchange for saving “tens of millions of dollars”.

The dividends are likely to be considerable. So much so that questions are now being asked about whether Baron Cohen, while trying to save the election, might have been able to save cinema had he embarked on a more conventional release strategy.

The irony is stark: as vultures circle the multiplexes, along comes a populist movie everyone really wants to see. Could the bumbling Kazakh reporter have done for the industry what Christopher Nolan’s Tenet failed to do in August – and what James Bond didn’t have the stomach for?

“I don’t think it matters what they put in cinemas in areas where moviegoers don’t feel safe in groups indoors,” says Anne Thompson, editor-at-large of IndieWire. While many cinemas across Europe and east Asia are still open, the continued closure of most screens in the US – and heightened scepticism over their safety – means salvation is simply out of reach.

“Comedy films have really been in decline at the box office, even in the case of sequels,” says Delphine Lievens, senior box office analyst at Gower Street Analytics. She points to Bill and Ted Face the Music, which went straight to streaming in the US but did have a theatrical release in the UK, where it has taken £1.2m. “That’s a result that could be attributed to the pandemic but it’s almost half what the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged has taken.”

Social media has turned everyone into potential media whores, including politicians who want their 15 minutes extended

Steven Gaydos, Variety

Baron Cohen’s films have opened on the big screen in the US to consistently diminishing returns. Borat made $128.5m (£98.6m) there in 2006; The Brothers Grimsby $6.9m a decade later. Meanwhile, he has had happier experiences on streaming channels, with Showtime for satire Who is America? and with Netflix for Mossad drama The Spy and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.

“Some film-makers really miss being able to go to cinemas and hear an audience laughing at their film,” says Gaydos. “Baron Cohen isn’t likely to be one of them.”

How exactly Amazon Prime scored the rights over their key rival remains unclear, but it’s clear that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will be by far the biggest hit yet for their Original Movies division. Despite expensive acquisitions, the outfit has so far failed to make inroads with either awards bodies or mainstream audiences. Titles such as Manchester By the Sea, Honey Boy, Chi-Raq and You Were Never Really Here won kudos and the odd prize, but a real smash has eluded them (neither Amazon nor Netflix allow the audited release of viewing figures).

Borat 2 will change that, while remaining consistent with a stable of titles made by highly distinctive voices, lured from the studios with the promise of full creative freedom – as well as cash.

Baron Cohen will not save cinema, but in failing to do so he offers a clear indication of the sort of films that may be able to thrive in a post-multiplex world. Streaming, with a worldwide simultaneous release, is a given, as films increasingly rely on the water-cooler of social media for promotion.

This element of urgency also means more movies are likely to directly engage with current affairs, or even to attempt to set the agenda. Topicality will be key, as audience tastes have altered during the rollercoaster news cycle of 2020.

Speaking to the Guardian last week, the Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald said that he suspected what audiences wanted during the time of coronavirus – and the subsequent depression – was twofold: feelgood escapism and well-sourced reportage.

“Everyone’s on edge, so something that’s entertaining is paramount,” said Macdonald. “But they also yearn to be well-informed. Documentaries may come out of all this quite well, if they can react to that appetite to understand the world and those fears about misinformation.”

An inflatable Borat floats down the River Thames in London to promote the release of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
An inflatable Borat floats down the Thames in London to promote Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Borat’s artful mix of agitprop, fly-on-the-wall reportage and stunt comedy is therefore ideal. It is also viral-friendly: each sting ripe for ripping into a three-minute video that gets disseminated everywhere.

That it is powered by prank interviews and hidden cameras, creative tropes felt by some to be old-fashioned, is no barrier to success, thinks Gaydos. “Yes, Candid Camera is more than 50 years old,” he says. “But if someone can figure out a fresh ‘gotcha’, there’s no rule saying it can’t work because it’s already been done. If that were the case everybody in Hollywood would pack up their tents and retire.”

Related: Borat v Trump: can entertainment really affect an election?

Plus, the stable of potential victims has never been greater. “Social media seems to have turned every demographic into potential media whores, including aged politicians who want their 15 minutes of fame extended. People are addicted to wanting their voice heard.”

That may also mean Borat’s shock value is dampened. With a real world so generous with its jaw-droppers, it can be hard for art to compete.

“When Borat first arrived in 2006,” says Gaydos, “you’d never seen anything like it: it was transgressive and disruptive and shocking. Today, Borat feels like just another day at the office. This moment in time is crazier than Borat. And that’s not good for Borat.”