Can The Daily Wire Turn Nashville Into Hollywood for Conservatives?
NASHVILLE — On March 22, 2021, the Tennessee General Assembly sent a resolution to the governor’s desk. Full of lofty sentiment, the document invokes such figures as John Adams and Ronald Reagan, and officially welcomes “to Tennessee The Daily Wire, a media company, and its co-founder and editor Ben Shapiro, who has truthfully said, ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings.’” Two days later, the governor signed it.
Started in 2015 as an online hub for clicky conservative news and culture-warring, The Daily Wire is closely associated with Mr. Shapiro, a crusading right-wing political squabbler and now the site’s editor emeritus.
But it is Mr. Shapiro’s co-founder and the company’s co-C.E.O., a writer and filmmaker named Jeremy Boreing, who is leading The Daily Wire in an ambitious new direction.
For years, the Daily Wire’s headquarters were in Los Angeles — the dream factory of coastal, liberal America. Then, in the fall of 2020, the company moved to Nashville, with the goal of expanding to become an all-you-can-eat buffet of conservative entertainment, complete with its own streaming platform and production house.
Many on the right believe that mainstream news and mainstream entertainment serve the same liberal agenda. In Nashville, the Daily Wire’s executives imagined, they could perform such a synthesis for the right.
Mr. Boreing isn’t shy about his “Succession”-size aspirations for the venture. During an interview in his office, where he keeps a collection of luxury watches in an oversize safe, Mr. Boreing compared himself to the media baron Rupert Murdoch.
“The difference between what I’m trying to do and what Rupert did,” Mr. Boreing said, “Is that I don’t want there to be a chasm between the missional purpose of the entertainment content and the news and commentary content,” as there was between 20th Century Fox and Fox News, before 20th Century Fox was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2019.
There are challenges. Nashville is an entertainment capital, but not for film or television. The politics of country music are complex, and the city itself votes blue. The Daily Wire’s production house is still under construction, as the company tries to construct an ad hoc conservative creative class in its new home.
Still, Mr. Boreing is optimistic that a market for what he’s selling exists — even if he’s building the product on the fly. “It’s a little bit of the Elon Musk model,” he said in his office (the location of which the company keeps guarded, as a precaution against what he calls the “extreme fringe” on both ends of the political spectrum.) “There’s not yet a factory in which we will build the Cybertruck” — a vehicle for which Mr. Musk, the Tesla C.E.O., opened pre-orders several years before it was scheduled to go into production — “but we would love to sell you one.”
Culture War as Entertainment
One simple principle explains almost every aspect of The Daily Wire: culture war as entertainment, a format-flexible monofocus on the bitter conflicts that can dominate American public life.
Among the Daily Wire’s regular targets are diversity, equity and inclusion (D.E.I.) initiatives, the alleged censorship of conservatives by social media companies, and a variety of issues affecting gay and transgender Americans.
Mr. Shapiro, who sets the tone for the company, is famous for attacking progressives as fragile and freedom hating on his college tours — which regularly galvanize campus protests — and on his podcast, which ranks among the top 20 most popular shows on Apple Podcasts. (Through a spokesperson, Mr. Shapiro declined to be interviewed.) His message is unabashedly socially conservative.
Mr. Shapiro has said that being transgender is a mental illnesses, and that a man and a woman do a better job raising children than same-sex couples do. In a November speech at Texas A&M University, Mr. Shapiro blamed the decline of religion, the advance of birth control, and social welfare for the rise of “profound evil.”
He called for his followers to “fight back.”
“The weight of reality is on our side,” Mr. Shapiro said. “The transgressives will lose, with the help of God,” he said.
Ari Drennen, the L.G.B.T.Q. program director for Media Matters, a nonprofit that monitors conservative media, said that The Daily Wire had “laid out this belief in traditional views of gender and sexuality as a cornerstone of western civilization.”
During the Trump years, Mr. Shapiro kept a distance from the MAGA media. But his site’s focus on L.G.B.T.Q. issues has pulled The Daily Wire to the right of some of its competitors.
When Congress announced the bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act, meant to safeguard the right to same-sex marriage, it garnered some Republican support, and even Fox News ran supportive op-eds.
Mr. Shapiro took to his podcast to denounce it: “The fact that many of the Republicans went along with this,” he said, “Man, this party needs an overhaul.”
“Daily Wire is not a big-tent media company,” Ms. Drennen said. “They are very interested in going after the 30 percent radical base that will pay them subscription fees.”
And Mr. Shapiro’s mordant, rapid-fire, pop-culture-inflected campaign against liberals and progressives has won his company another audience, too. “They seem to be reaching young people,” said Eliana Johnson, the editor in chief of The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication, “which a lot of right-wing media struggles to do.”
The Daily Wire has 5.4 million followers across its official TikTok accounts and those belonging to its stars, according to the company, and 17 million followers across the same Instagram accounts. It “really gets how media works in the era of social media,” said Ms. Drennen, resulting in “an alternative reality media universe for conservatives.”
The company, which is privately held, said it had $100 million in revenue in 2021. According to a spokesperson, it is on track to take in twice that in 2022.
Its streaming service, DailyWire+, has more than one million paid subscribers, according to data the company showed The New York Times. Each pays $12 to $20 per month. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with Netflix (223 million) and Hulu (47.2 million), but it represents 65 percent of the company’s revenue, according to the company’s C.F.O., Cyprien Sarteau.
The service’s streaming content ranges from overt activism to subtly political genre film.
Some of the DailyWire+ content is also available freely on YouTube, like videotaped versions of popular podcasts by Mr. Shapiro (one recent episode: “Why the Hard Left Is Cheering Queen Elizabeth II’s Death”); the moralizing psychologist Jordan Peterson (“How Marxism Is Disguised as Woke Morality”); and Candace Owens, the provocative commentator on race and politics (“White Lives Matter”).
But only members have access to the company’s highest-profile release in 2022, “What Is a Woman?,” a documentary featuring Matt Walsh, a pugilistic Daily Wire host known for his aggressive opposition to L.G.B.T.Q. curriculums in schools and all-ages drag shows. In the film, he derisively interviews, among others, a medical professional who provides transgender teenagers with puberty-suppressing drugs and other medically accepted treatments, which doctors describe as gender-affirming care.
“We knew going in that we wanted it to be a piece of entertainment,” Mr. Walsh said of the film, which critics have called misleading, cruel and transphobic.
The Daily Wire has converted attention on the film into live events, and more content. In the fall, after the documentary’s release and Twitter campaigns against hospitals that provide gender-affirming care led by Mr. Walsh and others, Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee called for an investigation of the Clinic for Transgender Health at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, which then paused performing procedures on transgender minors.
(In a letter to a state lawmakers, C. Wright Pinson, the deputy C.E.O. of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, wrote that an average of five under-18 patients received this kind of surgery per year since 2018. None of them were younger than 16, he wrote, parental consent was given in every case, and none of the patients received genital procedures.)
On Oct. 21, The Daily Wire put on a “Rally to End Child Mutilation” — its own term for the procedures — at the Tennessee State Capitol, which can now be streamed on YouTube and DailyWire+.
The streaming service also includes a Western starring the conservative actress Gina Carano; an interview of Benjamin Netanyahu, soon to be the prime minister of Israel, by Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Peterson; a forthcoming television adaptation of Ayn Rand’s libertarian novel “Atlas Shrugged”; and a forthcoming children’s cartoon about a family of home-schooled chinchillas. The strange variety of it all lends the enterprise a certain surf-and turf quality.
The cartoon is an early product of a new, $100 million investment in children’s entertainment that Mr. Boreing announced in March 2022, after the Walt Disney Company publicly opposed the bill from Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida that limits classroom instruction around sexual orientation or gender identity through third grade.
“Americans are tired of giving their money to woke corporations who hate them,” Mr. Boreing said at the time, claiming those companies want to “indoctrinate their children with radical race and gender theory.”
From Red America to Blue — and Back
Mr. Boreing grew up in Texas but lived and worked in Los Angeles for 20 years, where he helped start the production company Coattails Entertainment in 2005. He also served as the pastor of a home church in Los Angeles, and led a private group for conservatives in the entertainment industry.
Mr. Shapiro is a Los Angeles native. When the pair announced their decision to leave California in September 2020, during the teeth of the pandemic, they blamed Democrats. Mr. Boreing, in an interview with Deadline, said rising housing costs, high state taxes and pervasive homelessness in the city had forced the move.
After considering Dallas (not enough creatives, according to Mr. Boreing) and Austin, Texas (too many people who wished they still lived in Los Angeles), they settled on Nashville, already a cultural mecca.
The city was home to a few conservative media personalities: Clay Travis, a sports and political commentator, and Tomi Lahren, of Fox News. (It is not, however, home to Mr. Shapiro, who moved instead to South Florida, where, according to Mr. Boering, he found a larger Orthodox Jewish community.)
These conservatives have been met by hosannas from the state’s increasingly combative Republican Party. Mr. Boreing was invited to a dinner at the governor’s mansion; the General Assembly passed another resolution, this time honoring Ms. Owens.
That’s much to the annoyance of local Democrats.
“The thing many people moving to Nashville don’t grasp is that Nashville has for the last 60 years been a center of progressive values,” Holly McCall, a longtime Nashville journalist and Democratic strategist, wrote in an email. “The rest of Tennessee has moved right politically, but Nashville remains a stubborn chunk of progressiveness,” which went nearly 65 percent for Joe Biden in 2020.
Mr. Boreing gave his staff six weeks to decide whether to leave Los Angeles; 80 percent of them did. Over the next two years, the staff swelled to nearly 250 from less than 100, drawn predominantly from the coasts.
The Daily Wire went about hiring with an opportunistic eye to finding key figures in the culture wars. In October 2021, the company contracted Allison Williams, a longtime ESPN reporter, after she was fired by the sports channel for refusing to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
The company also signed up Dallas Sonnier, who has been crucial in producing its film and television projects. A native Texan like Mr. Boreing, Mr. Sonnier worked as a producer in Los Angeles for years, where he found that people in the industry were skeptical of his conservative politics. Eventually, he moved home to Dallas.
There, his production company Cinestate gained a national reputation for ultraviolent, throwback genre fare. Three films by the writer-director S. Craig Zahler — “Bone Tomahawk,” Brawl in Cell Block 99” and “Dragged Across Concrete” — were widely praised in the mainstream press for their accomplishment (“displays an intensity of purpose that makes it impossible to dismiss as well-executed trash,” The New York Times wrote of “Cell Block 99”) but widely criticized, too, for their occasionally bitterly conservative politics.
Mr. Sonnier brought controversy. In April 2020, a producer who worked with Cinestate was arrested in Dallas on a charge of sexual assault of a child; two months later, The Daily Beast published an investigation into Cinestate in which sources accused Mr. Sonnier of ignoring or downplaying other, inappropriate behavior by the producer. (According to court records, in July 2022, the sexual assault charge was refiled as an injury to a child charge, to which the producer pled nolo contendere and received five years deferred probation.)
“I didn’t understand the severity of it. I didn’t take the time to investigate it. I’m guilty of that,” Mr. Sonnier told The Daily Beast at the time. (Mr. Sonnier declined to expand on his comment for The Times.)
In the wake of the accusations, Cinestate’s “Run Hide Fight,” a thriller about a group of school shooters, didn’t get a distribution deal until The Daily Wire agreed to pick it up.
“Those things — to the extent that anything did happen — didn’t happen under my watch,” Mr. Boreing told The Daily Beast. (Mr. Boreing would not elaborate to The Times.) Soon, The Daily Wire reached an exclusive distribution agreement with Mr. Sonnier’s new company, Bonfire Legend.
So far, The Daily Wire has released three Bonfire Legend movies: “Run Hide Fight”; “Shut In,” a home invasion thriller; and “Terror on the Prairie,” which came about after Ms. Carano was fired from her role on the Star Wars spinoff “The Mandalorian” in February 2021 for posting a meme comparing the treatment of American conservatives to the treatment of European Jews during the Holocaust.
Mainstream reviewers have mostly savaged the films (from an IndieWire review of “Run Hide Fight“: “glib, artless, and reprehensibly stupid thriller that doesn’t even have enough on its mind to be provocative”) And while Movieguide, the popular Christian film review site, praised “Terror on the Prairie for its “very strong Christian, moral worldview with very strong Pro-American, capitalist values,” it also lamented “stilted” dialogue, “unmemorable” acting and “boring scenes.”
Bonfire Legend has so far stuck to its grind house roots, but Sonnier said that the company will soon start branching out into “a more Amblin vibe,” a reference to Steven Spielberg’s production house.
This gets at the kinds of feature films Mr. Boreing ultimately wants to sprinkle in among all the culture war red meat: throwbacks to a time when, he said, Hollywood didn’t lecture you about politics.
“You could construct my entire worldview,” Mr. Boreing said, “If you just listened to ’90s country on a loop, threw in every song ever recorded by Don Henley, the CBS mini-series of ‘Lonesome Dove,’ ‘Braveheart,’ ‘The Wrath of Khan’ and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.”
One challenge for the men is finding talent. Only one of the Bonfire Legend movies has been filmed in Nashville. According to Mr. Sonnier, the city has no shortage of technicians, who have years of experience shooting country music videos. But when it comes to the writers and actors, the company has to cast a wide net.
One reason for that: Many people won’t work with The Daily Wire because of the potential reputational harm. “Right now, I can offer people jobs, but I can’t offer them careers,” Mr. Boreing said. “So why would you come write a show for me if you thought that it was the last show you were ever going to write?”
Still, Mr. Boreing is committed to making movies that don’t just satisfy his audience’s desire to punch left, but that entertain them, as well.
“I could give the audience ‘Hillary’s Hard Drive: The Movie,’” Mr. Boreing said. “But if I want to engage in a long-term-value proposition with my audience, I have to give them things that they actually want to watch, not things that they want to want to watch.”
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