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His Fans Greenlight the Project

To make his latest documentary,
To make his latest documentary, "Iraq for Sale," Robert Greenwald e-mailed those likely to be sympathetic to the project. Thousands responded, providing $267,892 in 10 days. (By Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)

The Greenwald project is inherently political -- but it doesn't have to work this way.

"It could be a constituency that wants to see a movie made about nuns on motorcycles," Greenwald imagines, intriguingly. But seriously, if one wanted to make a movie about bass fishing or gay marriage or Death Cab for Cutie, if you could persuade 5,000 supporters to contribute $100, you could start filming.

"The filmmakers can make whatever kind of film they want to make as long as their fans will support it," Gilliam says. The trick is having a base. "A no-name director would have a much harder time," Gilliam agrees. But a legitimate appeal from a person known to his or her constituent community? "It completely democratizes the process," Gilliam says. (Meaning if Ann Coulter offered her services as executive producer for a doc excoriating Nancy Pelosi, she'd probably find takers, too.)

Greenwald says, "We've had trouble funding our films because we don't fit into the usual mold. We're not nonprofit, but we're not really for-profit either. We're committed to alternative distribution. We want to find supporters who say yes, we want these films made, and we want to reach as many people as possible."

"Iraq for Sale" will open in a small number of theaters in September, including a special showing at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington on Sept 18. But the theatrical release is mainly a strategy to attract critics, reviews and media coverage.

The bulk of the audience will likely experience the film in other settings -- at house parties, school auditoriums, church basements, union halls. Greenwald and company are focusing efforts on a week in October they've dubbed "Patriotism Over Profit," when they want their supporters to host screenings and then hook up on conference calls with Greenwald and guests. Many of these events are being sponsored by allies including NOW, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Service Employees International Union, the Nation magazine and various antiwar groups.

They unrolled their recent Wal-Mart documentary in a similar fashion, and Greenwald, citing their own surveys, says that in one week there were 7,000 screenings attended by some 500,000 people. That would be an average of 71 viewers per screening.

Greenwald says his documentaries, and the many others like them (there was an explosion of poli-docs and agitprop in the last election cycle, from right and left), serve to inform, challenge and rally supporters.

But the hardest thing, Greenwald concedes, is to get a normal, uncommitted voter-viewer to sit down and watch a documentary. "I know there's no possible way somebody is going to pay $7 to $10 for a movie they're unsure about," by going to the cineplex, he says.

Airing it on television, on cable, is not much better. "They'll click right on by," Greenwald says. "They won't make an appointment to watch it."

"But if a neighbor or colleague hands you a DVD," he says, "you might watch it." Maybe. That is one reason why Greenwald sells his DVDs in bulk at a steep discount. A single unit costs $12.95, but a box of 30 sells for $240, or $8 each.

Greenwald says the best way to get an audience is the invited screenings. "The pizza party at the synagogue," he says. Or a dozen neighbors in the living room.

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