[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
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
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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