September 1, 2008

Short Shots: Brave New Films Makes Quick Work of Issue-Driven Videos

While many bemoan the state of theatrical documentary distribution, filmmaker and political activist Robert Greenwald has turned the situation to his advantage. Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004), his nonfiction directorial debut, was originally distributed via nationwide house parties organized in conjunction with MoveOn.org, screenings hosted by the Center for American Progress and independent online DVD sales. He continued exploring alternative distribution methods with subsequent projects, including Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004). Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005) and Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers (2006).

Given that Greenwald was one of the first to figure out how to successfully deliver his social action-oriented films to the hearts and minds of audiences utilizing non-traditional methods, it's no surprise to find his latest efforts focused on the Internet. Brave New Films (http://bravenewfilms.org/), his new media company, is currently in the midst of several viral video campaigns, supported by blogging, websites, e-mail lists and social networking tools.

Despite the election year timing, Greenwald says that the seed for the viral campaigns was actually planted in 2006, when he and his collaborators had a collective "aha" moment after finishing Iraq for Sale. It had nothing to do with presidential politics, and everything to do with the need to address issues more quickly. Even working non-stop, a minimum six-to-eight months was needed to produce a quality film. There was a growing concern among Greenwald and his colleagues that even this rapid turnaround was not fast enough to be effective.

In fall 2006, as part of the campaign for Iraq for Sale, Brave New Films put up a short, humorous video piece about Halliburton on YouTube. Two days later the piece had about 12,000 views. "If you had that for a movie in two days in a theater you'd be beside yourself, right?" says Greenwald. "That started a conversation internally about whether there was an opportunity to reach more people and a diverse audience more quickly. So we made the decision to try to commit ourselves at least in 2007-and hopefully in 2008 and 2009-to really mastering this new form of storytelling and this new means of distribution. Our timing was good, given that this election is heroin for people-they can't get enough of it!"

Current online campaigns include, among others, "The Real McCain" and "Fox Attacks," each aimed at revealing Brave New Films' version of the truth about their subject. The projects are funded by a combination of foundation grants, individual donations, partner organizations, subscriptions and merchandise sales. A key element in each campaign's success has been identifying the core audience early in development, and then mobilizing their enthusiasm to help spread the word and reach the other side. Greenwald also emphasizes the importance of good storytelling, something he feels often gets overlooked with political video either because the people making it sacrifice story for message or because they just don't have the film training.

While the speed of the Internet is helpful in quickly addressing an issue, it can also present challenges, such as when opponents of a campaign fight back with immediate accusations of distortion or a position that differs from the one Brave New Films is promoting. Message boards have become a battleground, filled with comments that range from passionate to ignorant. For example, right now the "The Real McCain: Big Oil Fuels the Straight Talk Express" video includes the comment, "Shame on all of you for lying to discredit a great man, a war hero and the next President of the United States." Brave New Films welcomes discourse as long as the focus stays on disagreements about policy as opposed to accuracy. To combat claims that they are taking quotes out of context, they are now beginning to put up full transcripts and source clips. The staff is also actively involved in responding to comments on the Brave New Films' blogs and on YouTube.

Controversy doesn't scare Greenwald; in fact, it keeps him motivated. "You get attacked viciously; it comes with the territory," he says. "The notion that I can testify before a House Committee about war profiteering because I made a film about it, that we can truly engage some of the lies, distortions and bullying of Fox News, or that with "The Real McCain" pieces we can start to truly effect how he's looked at by the world at large is an amazing, powerful and humbling experience."

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.

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