By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
They got $267,892 in 10 days.
"Dear activists, colleagues and friends," Greenwald e-mailed in early May. "We are stunned."
A billionaire philanthropist was the anonymous $100,000 donor. Beverly Hills investor Erika Glazer and medical equipment entrepreneur Dick Mazess kicked in $82,000, according to Greenwald. The rest, $185,000, came from 3,000 small donors giving an average of $62 each.
Regarding the list of supporters: "It'll be longer than the credits at the end of 'Lord of the Rings,' " Gilliam promises.
Typically, Hollywood producers raise capital from the studios and outside investors -- hedge funds and investment banks like Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs -- and with loans.
Small-scale independent filmmakers, the kind who bring their documentaries to the Sundance Film Festival, put together funding however they can -- with art grants, money from educational or journalism foundations or from relatives and friends -- and in many cases by racking up hefty balances on their credit cards.
Gilliam and Greenwald say they know of no one who has ever raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Internet to make a movie. (Though this year at Cannes, a do-it-yourself director named Melissa Balin attempted to auction her finished movie -- "FreezerBurn" -- on eBay. It sold in one market: Lithuania.)
"For all practical purposes, this is the first time I've heard of raising money for a film this way. I've got to hand it to them. I'm very impressed. It's clever," says Lawrence Turman, a veteran Hollywood producer of over 40 films (from "The Graduate" to "American History X") and author of the how-to book "So You Want to Be a Producer."
Turman says the Internet funding seems well suited for "political and in your face films" like Greenwald's documentaries. "You're not going to raise $40 million, but you might raise $1 million," he says.
"I think this is the future," Gilliam says. Not for standard Hollywood fare, he admits. But for niche product, for indie stuff. "It is my dream to pull this off," Gilliam says. "To figure out how to fund movies out of the control of corporations. Our goal is to fund and distribute any movie we want to make completely outside of the system."
This is the Howard Dean School of Film Funding, very Net-rooty, very social-networky, very now. It promises Hollywood dreams beyond the reach of the Man.
You have an idea. You have an affinity group. You have e-mail addresses. You ask for money.
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.
The point, Gilliam says, is not just to sell DVDs. In appeals for donations for the new Iraq film, the Greenwald team wrote, "This film will nationalize the Congressional election and assure that Bush cannot change the subject, but is instead the subject of change."
Will it? A still unfinished 70-minute version of "Iraq for Sale," shown to a reporter recently, asserted that the U.S. government had recklessly transferred duties in Iraq from the military to defense companies and contractors whose motives were driven not by patriotism (or even a desire to win the war) but by profit.
The documentary attempts to show that not only are some of these companies (whose boards and corporate officers are filled with former government and military officials) taking the taxpayers to the cleaners ($45 for a six-pack of Coke), but operating in ways that endanger Iraqis, the troops and their own employees.
The film, in three parts, focuses on Blackwater Security Consulting, which has a small army of bodyguards in Iraq; on Halliburton's KBR, which supplies American troops with everything from fuel to food to latrines; and on CACI International, which had employees at the Abu Ghraib prison.
The movie features interviews with Col. Janis Karpinski, former head of Abu Ghraib, translators and interrogators as well as survivors of personnel killed by Iraqi insurgents, including the contractors dragged through the streets of Fallujah and hanged from the bridge there in the spring of 2004. Some of these families are now involved in lawsuits against the companies.
When the movie is finished and released, there may be plenty of debate -- a back-and-forth that is largely missing from the current version. There are no rebuttals -- on or off camera -- in the documentary from its corporate subjects. Greenwald says they refused to cooperate.
Melissa Norcross, a spokeswoman for Halliburton, said in a statement, "Contrary to his claims, we personally provided Mr. Greenwald and his production staff detailed information about KBR's work in Iraq and additional information is available on the company's Web site. It may be that Mr. Greenwald chose not to include this information because the facts did not support his thesis. Halliburton supports an individual's right to free speech -- even when he doesn't have the facts right."
J. William Koegel Jr., a lawyer for CACI, stated that no one at the company has seen the movie. "The Web site trailer, however, suggests a hatchet job." Koegel added that "any suggestion that the use of civilian contractors as interrogators contributed to the detainee abuse is simply wrong" and that "no CACI employee has been charged with any misconduct in connection with interrogation work," and no CACI workers appear in any of the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs. Telephone inquires to the spokemsan for Blackwater were not returned.
One of Greenwald's story producers, Amanda Spain, says she called the companies so often she felt she was harassing them, but couldn't get them to appear in the film. "It was kind of a bummer, I'm not going to lie. I wanted them to respond, and they will, once the movie comes out."