THE INNOVATORS Re-Imagining the Movies
His Fans Greenlight the Project
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Jim Gilliam is only 28 years old. In a previous incarnation, he was a venture capitalist and a chief technology officer. Now his voice is a old man's rasp and he does not have the strength to cook his own food. He is waiting for a double lung transplant. But sick in his bedroom, Gilliam had a revolutionary idea: Why not get the audience to pay for a movie before it gets made?
He calls it "People Powered Film." It could be the start of something.
Gilliam founded Brave New Films in 2004 along with Robert Greenwald, the documentary producer-director behind projects including "Uncovered: The War on Iraq," "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" and his most recent, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price." Greenwald fans applaud his work; his detractors, such as Fox's Bill O'Reilly, call him "a radical progressive who blames America first," as well as "a liar and an idiot."
Earlier this year, Greenwald was searching for a new subject/target. He knew he wanted to make a movie to be released in the push-and-shove of the coming midterm elections, when interest in his politically charged material might be high and when his film might help remove Republicans and insert Democrats (which, for Greenwald and his supporters, is the point).
When Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal advocacy group Campaign for America's Future, suggested to him the topic of "war profiteers," meaning American defense contractors in Iraq such as Halliburton, Greenwald recalls, "It was perfect."
But funding was a problem -- Greenwald's documentaries generate more heat than coin. Their take at the box office is tiny (mostly they're seen on DVD). "We weren't raising anything," says Greenwald, sitting on a recent afternoon in his office, located in what appears to be a converted motel behind the Sony Pictures lot, as his team rushed to complete the project for its debut next month.
The usual bankers of political documentaries -- left-leaning organizations and high-roller liberal donors -- weren't rushing to write Greenwald any checks. Greenwald doesn't know why. "Maybe I'm a lousy fundraiser," he says.
Then Gilliam had his idea. Robert, why not go on the Internet and just ask for the money? "I thought he was crazy," Greenwald says. "I thought this would never work."
On April 25, Gilliam -- weak at home in Newport Beach, his lungs scarred and ruined because of earlier cancer treatments, but still able to type -- sent out a mass e-mail to thousands of people who had purchased DVDs or expressed interest in Greenwald's movies or causes through the company's various Web sites.
The e-mail alerted potential supporters that Greenwald was committed to making "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers," and though they had not shot a single frame, Gilliam promised "it will have an enormous impact when it comes out shortly before the elections this November."
The pitch? Gilliam wrote: "To start shooting, we need money. Overall, the film will cost $750,000. We can expect about $450,000 to be offset by DVD sales, selling foreign rights, and an advance from our retail store distributor, but we still need $300,000. A generous donor just stepped up and will contribute $100,000 if we can match it with $200,000 from someone else. That someone else is you! 4000 people giving $50 each. We'll put everyone's name in the credits."