Anti-business films are the new muckrakers
By Jacob Adelman
The Associated Press
Workers sort coffee beans in a scene from "Black Gold," which portrays rampant poverty among Ethiopian coffee growers. Starbucks refused to be interviewed by the filmmakers but since has attempted to counter bad publicity created by the film.
LOS ANGELES — Starbucks 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.
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 publicity.
"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 audience.
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 Argenti, a professor at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University.
Michael Moore's "Roger and Me" left a lasting blemish on General Motors 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 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 to add healthier items to its menu.
"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."
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 century.
"These guys are doing what any good crusading journalist would have done in a time when everyone was reading the newspaper every day," he said.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company