Cel­lu­lar tea party: Film­mak­ers bring Gore doc­u­men­tary straight to au­di­ence

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY SONNY BUNCH

Un­able to get Hol­ly­wood stu­dio back­ing for their new doc­u­men­tary, “Not Evil Just Wrong” — an an­swer to Al Gore’s cli­mat­e­change lec­ture “An In­con­ve­nient Truth” — hus­band-and-wife film­mak­ers Phe­lim McAleer and Ann McEl­hin­ney have taken mat­ters into their own hands.

Hop­ing to tap the surge of pop­ulist anger and ac­tivism on the right, they are by­pass­ing tra­di­tional dis­tri­bu­tion av­enues and bring­ing their film di­rectly to mo­ti­vated audiences through “cin­e­matic tea par­ties,” their term for the patch­work of grass­roots screen­ings in liv­ing rooms, cam­pus au­di­to­ri­ums and rented the­aters across the coun­try that they have sched­uled for Oct. 18.

Mr. McAleer and Ms. McEl­hin­ney are part of a new breed of guer­rilla doc­u­men­tar­i­ans across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. Tak­ing ad­van­tage of cheaper, more ac­ces­si­ble video-pro­duc­tion tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tive, In­ter­net­based di­rect mar­ket­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion tech­niques, they are assem­bling new audiences for their films from the ground up — without the stu­dio mid­dle­men.

The av­er­age doc­u­men­tary is never seen by audiences out­side of film fes­ti­vals: Be­cause of ad­ver­tis­ing, the­ater rentals and print costs, the price of putting movies in front of audiences across the coun­try is pro­hib­i­tive, and doc­u­men­taries in par­tic­u­lar are widely viewed as box-of­fice poi­son.

Even the ex­cep­tion to the rule, Michael Moore, is com­ing to be seen as a one-hit won­der. His most re­cent film, “Cap­i­tal­ism: A Love Story,” tanked at the box of­fice when it hit wide release, and his pre­vi­ous release, “Sicko,” failed to gross his re­ported salary of $25 mil­lion.

“If you don’t have $10 mil­lion, if you don’t have a stu­dio be­hind you or a mas­sive bud­get be­hind you, it just can’t be done,” Mr. McAleer said of a wide release. It doesn’t help that the sort of pic­ture that he and his wife are sell­ing — an ex­pose of the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of dras­tic car­bon re­duc­tion that ques­tions the con­ven­tional wis­dom re­gard­ing cli­mate change — is po­lit­i­cal anath­ema to most of Hol­ly­wood.

“No big stu­dio would come be­hind us, even though the film has very high pro­duc­tion val­ues,” Mr. McAleer said.

Ef­fec­tively de­nied a the­atri­cal release, the film­mak­ers have cho­sen a more di­rect ap­proach: cin­e­matic tea par­ties.

The film­mak­ers have of­fered the or­ga­niz­ers of the screen­ing with the high­est at­ten­dance a trip to their na­tive Ire­land. A $500 prize is awarded for the screen­ing with the “most orig­i­nal” theme.

Vis­i­tors to their Web site can pick up sin­gle DVDs for $19.99 or “pre­miere party packs” for $10 more; the party packs will in­clude a poster, in­vi­ta­tions and a piece of red car­pet.

Mr. McAleer and Ms. McEl­hin­ney have ex­pe­ri­ence with this sort of event: More than 100,000 copies of their pre­vi­ous fea­ture, “Mine Your Own Busi­ness,” were shipped through di­rect sales.

An­other ad­vo­cacy film­maker go­ing straight to the con­sumer is Cit­i­zens United, which at­tempted to dis­trib­ute a film about Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton dur­ing her pres­i­den­tial pri­mary race against Barack Obama. In an ef­fort to gin up in­ter­est in the movie, the film­maker dis­trib­uted free DVDs through news­pa­pers in bat­tle­ground states; crit­ics de­rided the move as a trans­par­ent ploy to af­fect the out­come of the race.

Ef­forts to show com­mer­cials for the movie re­sulted in a Supreme Court case that will de­cide whether the McCain-Fein­gold law can be in­voked to de­fine a doc­u­men­tary as a cam­paign ad­ver­tise­ment and limit its air­ing.

That isn’t the only way that Cit­i­zens United has tried to pro­mote its films.

“We have huge dis­tri­bu­tion through the mail and our phone pro­grams, so we of­fer films, all of our prod­ucts, to our mem­ber­ship,” said David N. Bossie, pres­i­dent of Cit­i­zens United. In ad­di­tion to di­rect mar­ket­ing, Cit­i­zens United has straight-to-DVD sales at stores such as Bor­ders and Barnes & Noble, and rentals through Net­flix and Block­buster.

As a re­sult of th­ese un­ortho­dox meth­ods, Mr. Bossie said, Cit­i­zens United films av­er­age sales of 50,000 to 100,000 units in the first six months.

“We have films that moved hun­dreds of thou­sands of units, like ‘Re­dis­cov­er­ing God in Amer­ica,’ which has sold al­most 300,000 copies” in two years, Mr. Bossie said.

Doc­u­men­tar­ian Robert Green­wald used house par­ties for di­rect sales for “Out­foxed,” and the film climbed to the top of on­line re­tailer Ama­zon’s DVD sec­tion at one point.

Film­mak­ers who are not ide­o­log­i­cally aligned also are pur­su­ing al­ter­nate dis­tri­bu­tion strate­gies. Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals owner Ted Leon­sis’ SnagFilms has taken a li­brary of more than 850 films and made them avail­able to the pub­lic free of charge.

“This month, our film wid­gets will be on 220 mil­lion pages and will stream 300 mil­lion films,” Mr. Leon­sis said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “We’ve be­come, in 13 months, 14 months, an­other win­dow for doc­u­men­tary and in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ers.”

Mr. McAleer and Ms. McEl­hin­ney have taken the more di­rect ap­proach in spread­ing the word about “Not Evil.”

“We’re do­ing di­rect mail­ing, we’re send­ing out lots of e-mails, we’re do­ing lots of so­cial net­work­ing,” said Ms. McEl­hin­ney. “We’re reach­ing out to groups around the coun­try that feel that this is an im­por­tant story, and we’re ask­ing them to help in a kind of grass-roots ef­fort as well.”

The direc­tors hope those grass-roots ef­forts will lead to a to­tal au­di­ence reach­ing the six fig­ures at the pre­miere par­ties on Oct. 18.

One party is be­ing hosted by Casey Jo Cooper, a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Cen­tral Florida. Her pre­miere will fea­ture “pa­parazzi” tak­ing pic­tures while bounc­ers en­sure those in at­ten­dance are “VIPs.” The dress will be for­mal, and audiences will ar­rive on a red car­pet.

Ore­gon State Uni­ver­sity will host an­other of the pre­miere par­ties. Af­ter see­ing “Not Evil Just Wrong” at a con­fer­ence in Au­gust, chem­istry pro­fes­sor Nick Drapela thought it was im­per­a­tive for those on his cam­pus to check out the pic­ture.

“Seven years ago, I was teach­ing global-warm­ing the­ory to my stu­dents,” he said, “and there are no facts that sub­stan­ti­ate the the­ory. There are a lot of things that are said, and there are a lot of mod­els, but there are no facts.”

Af­ter talk­ing with the direc­tors, Mr. Drapela of­fered to host a screen­ing and be­gan work­ing with stu­dent Will Rogers to make that hap­pen.

“We’re rent­ing one of the au­di­to­ri­ums, and it holds at least 500-some peo­ple,” said Mr. Rogers, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Lib­erty, a lib­er­tar­ian stu­den­trun news­pa­per at Ore­gon State. “I would hope for 150 peo­ple, but it de­pends on what sort of ad­ver­tis­ing we get.”

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