[IMC-Video] Documentary Films Rattle Business World

a. mark liiv mark at whisperedmedia.org
Mon Nov 27 12:18:28 PST 2006


Monday, November 27, 2006 
Published on Monday, November 27, 2006 by the Associated Press

Documentary Films Rattle Business World
by Jacob Adelman

Starbucks Corp. was one of the companies that 
turned down interview requests from Nick and Mark 
Francis when the brothers were shooting their 
documentary about rampant poverty among Ethiopian 
coffee growers.

Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, shown in this undated 
promotional photo, puts his own body on the line, 
chowing down a grueling 30-day drive-through-only 
diet in his film 'Super Size Me.' (AP Photo/Julie 
Soefer )
But after "Black Gold" attracted attention at the 
Sundance Film Festival in January, the coffee 
giant invited the British brothers to its Seattle 
headquarters as it prepared for a barrage of bad 

"Black Gold," now being screened at festivals and 
art houses, is the latest in a growing genre of 
documentary films shaking up the business world. 
They are taking critiques of corporate power that 
would once have been the province of newspapers 
and magazines to movie theaters and DVD shops, 
where they're finding an increasingly receptive 

The trend, which started with "Roger and Me" in 
1989 and more recently featured "Super Size Me" 
and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," is 
forcing some corporate targets to counterattack - 
and, some say, even change business practices - 
to dodge claims of unfair wages, unhealthy 
products or environmental degradation.

"When you're talking about a documentary, it's 
something that's being presented as if it's fact, 
so that's a huge problem for companies," said 
Paul A. Argenti, a professor at Tuck School of 
Business at Dartmouth University.

Michael Moore's "Roger and Me" left a lasting 
blemish on General Motors Corp. for closing its 
plant in Flint, Mich., and leaving rampant 
unemployment in its wake.

Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary "Super Size 
Me" assailed McDonald's for pushing high-calorie 
meals, while last year's Enron film by Alex 
Gibney showed how internal avarice and corruption 
brought down the world's largest energy company.

The films are finding an eager audience, said 
Erik Schut, editorial director of TLA 
Entertainment group, which runs a chain of video 
rental shops on the East Coast and operates a DVD 
mail order service.

"These are not Hollywood-style films," he said. 
"So the fact that people are responding to them, 
that says a lot."

Jon Else, who teaches documentary filmmaking at 
the University of California, Berkeley, believes 
the growing interest in corporate-critical 
documentaries is a reaction to the extremes of 
wealth created by an untamed free market.

Nick Francis said "Black Gold" stemmed from the 
brothers' outrage about the poverty that persists 
among Ethiopian growers even as multinational 
coffee sellers make huge profits.

The brothers put the final cost of the movie at 
$760,000 and said its financing was typical for 
films of the genre, relying on grants, small 
donations and pro bono production help.

This year's "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers" 
from director Robert Greenwald was bankrolled by 
thousands of individual donors who responded to a 
fundraising e-mail from the filmmakers.

Despite the relatively small budgets, many of the 
films have drawn big attention.

Starbucks sent an e-mail to employees in the 
United Kingdom characterizing "Black Gold" as 
"inaccurate and incomplete" before it played at 
the London Film Festival. At Sundance, the 
company distributed a statement saying it 
believes "coffee farmers should make a living 
wage and be paid fair prices."

Nick Francis believes "Black Gold" also helped 
prompt an upcoming meeting between the chief 
executive of Starbucks and the Ethiopian prime 
minister. Starbucks spokeswoman Audrey Lincoff 
said the film and the meeting were unrelated.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reacted similarly to 
Greenwald's "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low 
Price" when it was released in 2005. The company 
kept a log of what it called the film's "numerous 
inaccuracies" and shared it with reporters and on 
its Web site, spokeswoman Marisa Bluestone said.

Wal-Mart also made its workers available for a 
rebuttal documentary, "Why Wal-Mart Works: And 
Why that Drives Some People C-r-a-z-y," which 
portrays the corporation sympathetically.

Spurlock suspects his 2004 documentary "Super 
Size Me," which showed the unhealthy effect of a 
strictly fast food diet, helped influence 
McDonald's Corp. to add healthier items to its 

"McDonald's is launching its new 'Go Active! 
Adult Happy Meals' nationwide," he wrote on his 
Web log when his movie first began generating 
buzz. "Coincidence? Yeah, right," he wrote.

McDonald's has consistently denied any connection 
between the film and changes to its menu.

"Super Size Me" is one of the relatively few 
business-related documentaries to find broad 
distribution. Roadside Attractions and Samuel 
Goldwyn Films picked it up after it won Spurlock 
a Sundance documentary directing award in 2004.

It went on to earn $11.5 million at the U.S. box 
office, making it the biggest moneymaker in the 
genre. "Roger and Me" earned $6.7 million at the 
U.S. box office. "Sicko," Moore's film on the 
pharmaceutical industry, is due out next summer.

Even less broadly distributed documentaries are 
finding wider interest than a liberal screed in 
The Nation or an expose in The New York Times 
Magazine with similar ideas might reach.

"You get a lot of bang for the buck when you make 
a movie," Else said. "You get a lot of eyeballs."

Web sites for documentaries like "Black Gold" and 
"Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" list 
dozens of screenings each month at repertory 
theaters, universities and churches where they're 
presented by advocacy groups and often followed 
by discussion sessions.

"They become events in themselves," Nick Francis said.

Else said the filmmakers are akin to the 
rabble-rousing reporters who took on the railroad 
empires and mining giants of the early 20th 

"These guys are doing what any good crusading 
journalist would have done in a time when 
everyone was reading the newspaper everyday," he 

© 2006 Associated Press

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