Documentary Films Rattle Business World


Richard Moore

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Documentary Films Rattle Business World
Sunday November 26, 1:49 pm ET
By Jacob Adelman, Associated Press Writer

Videocam-Toting Davids Shooting Documentaries Tackle Corporate Goliaths on 
Business Practices

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- 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.

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 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 

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 

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 

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 

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 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," 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 

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 everyday," he said.

Copyright © 2006 Yahoo! Inc. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press.

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