Docs

Greenwald’s Grassroots Gospel

Even before shooting began for Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, director Robert Greenwald was organizing the feature documentary's high-impact 'Premiere Week.' But there were no clichéd red carpet affairs in the schedule of events that took place around the globe from November 13 to 19. Instead, Greenwald focused on the distribution of the film's dvd, and used an online viral strategy that included blogs, emails and six hilarious spoof ads to reach out to thousands of potential fans, volunteers and special interest groups sympathetic to the doc's polemic message.
January 1, 2006

Even before shooting began for Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, director Robert Greenwald was organizing the feature documentary’s high-impact ‘Premiere Week.’ But there were no clichéd red carpet affairs in the schedule of events that took place around the globe from November 13 to 19. Instead, Greenwald focused on the distribution of the film’s DVD, and used an online viral strategy that included blogs, emails and six hilarious spoof ads to reach out to thousands of potential fans, volunteers and special interest groups sympathetic to the doc’s polemic message.

Brave New Films, Greenwald’s LA-based production company, is calling the result ‘the biggest grassroots mobilization in movie history.’ More than 8,000 volunteer screenings have been hosted in schools, living rooms and community centers in countries as far flung as China, Spain, Australia, France and Mexico. The US accounted for the majority of screenings, with places of worship alone supplying more than 1,000 of the makeshift venues. (To put those numbers into perspective, Shrek 2 was released on 4,163 screens, making it the biggest opening release ever in the US.)

An experienced drama director, Greenwald got into docs after executive producing 2002′s Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election. Uncovered: The Iraq War and Unconstitutional followed in 2003 and 2004 respectively, but it was the unique grassroots campaign that supported 2004′s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism that put Greenwald on the non-fiction map. In partnership with the Web-savvy political group MoveOn.org, Greenwald released Outfoxed on DVD over the Internet and sold more than 100,000 copies in three weeks at US$9.95 a disk. The doc was then picked up by a distributor and released theatrically. Greenwald founded Brave New Films the following year to produce films with controversial stories that stimulate debate and inspire people to get involved.

Greenwald says the personal stories at the heart of The High Cost of Low Price, which targets Wal-Mart as the epitome of corporate greed run amok, made it ideal as the prodco’s debut title. In fact, he first took note of the retailer after a neighbor who worked for Wal-Mart said his managers were helping him apply for government aide to pay for health insurance.

‘I very much wanted to combine my training and experience in the narrative world and the documentary world, and here was an opportunity to do it. Because it was personal stories, I could make a film that had human drama at the center of it,’ says Greenwald. ‘And, politically, it was raising some very important questions. I was reading the other day that governments set up corporations to serve the people; they were meant to be a tool. Now the tool has become more powerful, and the servant has taken over the master.’

Reviewing the film for The New York Times, critic Anita Gates says The High Cost of Low Price ‘makes its case with breathtaking force.’ But she also questions the documentary’s potential impact, noting the re-election of us president Bush despite the success of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. However, the comparison overlooks a significant difference. While Moore is a preacher, Greenwald is a shepherd. And his flock keeps getting bigger.

In addition to the small staff of film professionals who traveled around the world finding stories, conducting interviews, handling archive and filming footage for the doc, Greenwald enlisted more than 850 field producers to help make the film – volunteers from different disciplines and levels of experience who pitched in to do research, take photos, give advice, raise awareness and help with distribution. ‘There’s one guy we call ‘Super Field Producer,” says Greenwald. ‘He drove 40 miles to get a [shot of] Wal-Mart at night and he’s organizing house parties.’

Outreach began with a list of about 750,000 people who had bought dvds of Greenwald’s previous films. To that he added his own personal list of 1,000 names. Others were reached through the support of organizations such as The Sierra Club, the ACLU, and the Center for American Progress. Still more supporters joined by reading the film’s blogs. ‘It’s people who want to do something,’ says the director of his hard-working fans. ‘They’re a huge, untapped resource at a time when people care so passionately about what’s happening in our country.’

Even the film’s title and subtitle were determined by a democratic online vote that yielded the winning slogan, plus several thousand other suggestions, including ‘Wal-Mart: Consuming America,’ ‘Wal-Mart: Discounting America,’ and simply ‘Wal-Mart: The Movie.’

‘The irony is, I’m a technical idiot, but conceptually I just love this stuff,’ Greenwald says of the multi-pronged grassroots approach. ‘The way I look at it is, it’s a conversation. It’s interactive, so it’s not preaching and it’s not a speech. You take the blogging, the parody ads, the naming contest, the field producers – all of that comes together as a vigorous approach to how we’re going to reach people.’

The parody ads were a small but significant coup for Greenwald early on when the retailer tried to combat the doc’s message with an aggressive PR campaign that includes ads touting Wal-Mart’s good deeds. ‘They’re hysterical,’ says Greenwald of Wal-Mart’s spots. ‘They aren’t selling anything. I thought, ‘These are made to be mocked.”

At a cost of $100, ‘maybe $150 if you count the muffins and coffee,’ seven mockumercials were shot (three staring actors James Cromwell and Francis Fisher, who volunteered for the roles) that play up criticisms of Wal-Mart’s social and environmental impact, salaries, and labor practices. Initially, the spots were only available on the Web, but the response was encouraging enough that Greenwald decided to run the spoof spots in theaters to promote the film. By Premiere Week, more than 200,000 people had downloaded the ads.

Greenwald says the groundwork for distribution and promotion was in place thanks to the success of Outfoxed. ‘People understand now that I’m interested in this alternative way of doing things,’ he says. But throwing a far-from-flattering spotlight on a worldwide retailer that generates annual profits in the hundreds of billions brought about some shaky moments.

Right from the beginning, Greenwald says he underestimated how much time was needed to put the doc together. ‘I had no idea it would take me four or five months to find the personal stories,’ he explains. ‘I thought a year [to make the film] would be sufficient time, and in fact it was insane. It should have been two years.’

More worrying still was the film’s finances. The feature doc cost $1.8 million. About $60,000 was raised through donations given over the Internet, but $750,000 was to be gifted by a private funder who pulled out of the project last spring without warning. Greenwald won’t reveal the funder’s identity, except to say it was a man who owns a film company in the US. ‘He was afraid Wal-Mart would blacklist him. At all levels – in Hollywood and among many Wal-Mart employees – we encountered a tremendous culture of fear.’

Greenwald sympathizes, and acknowledges that Wal-Mart would indeed be a formidable foe. More than a third of all dvds sold in the US are bought at Wal-Mart. For some of the titles, the retailer is responsible for more than 50% of sales.

The director admits he considered postponing the doc, but decided against it. He had promised too many people a film for November to go back on his commitment. Instead, he joined the ranks of doc-makers deep in debt. ‘I have bank loans up the ying yang,’ he says.

With no direct industry support, Greenwald opted to self-distribute the film theatrically, setting up Brave New Distribution with Adam Chapnick, who handled the distribution for Outfoxed and Uncovered for Canoga Park, California-based Cinema Libre Distribution. Despite his guerilla tactics, the director admits it’s important to be on the big screen. ‘It gives a legitimacy to it,’ he explains, ‘and there are people who love to see a movie in the theater with a crowd. I don’t want to eliminate any constituency.’

He furthers that all filmmakers naturally gravitate towards a theatrical release, but says it can’t be the goal for Brave New Films. Besides the economic challenges, a big screen run doesn’t compare to the results achieved by cultivating an interactive online audience. ‘Theatrical is not the key,’ he asserts. ‘Hopefully we’ll sell 25,000 to 75,000 DVDs. That’s our huge effort because that’s the way you reach people, that’s the way you effect people, and that’s the way you change people’s minds. I love going to the movie theaters and I love seeing my film up there, but it’s not the most effective way for social change.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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