Show Me the Money! 'I.O.U.S.A.' Reveals another Inconvenient Truth
If the terrorists don't get us, the $9,565,042,361,845.53 (That's over nine trillion
dollars.) of US public debt will surely kill us. Patrick Creadon's I.O.U.S.A. (Prods.: Sarah Gibson, Christine O'Malley; http://www.iousathemovie.com/)
takes a revealing look at our ever-growing national debt and
its devastating consequences, and is a must-see for all Americans-especially baby-
boomers and future retirees. Creadon poses the big question: Will there be any
Social Security benefits left to collect, or do we start hoarding Wal-Mart
We are a nation of
debtors-no savings, upside-down mortgages-and our own government's indebtedness
to foreign countries and our ever-expanding military means we are collectively
Creadon follows US
Comptroller General David Walker across the country as he explains America's
unsustainable fiscal policies to its citizens, with surprising results. Ignore
this film at your own risk. I.O.U.S.A.
opens theatrically August 22 through Roadside Attractions.
Bixby, executive director of The Concord Coalition (right) and former US
Comptroller General David M. Walker, from Patrick Creadon's I.O.U.S.A. (Prods.: Christine O'Malley,
Sarah Gibson), which opens August 22 through Roadside Attractions. Courtesy of
your film is highly educational and extremely well done, it is an economics
lesson in a scholarly sense. And as your man-on-the-street interviews
demonstrate in the film, most Americans are ignorant of our economic history
and current disastrous conditions. Are you concerned that people will care
enough to view the film, or find it too "educational" as opposed to
entertaining? While the economy is a hot issue, do you think that people might
not want to pay money to be reminded that they, and we as a nation, are in
debt? Will people shell out $10 for a film they probably can't afford to watch (and
can't afford not to watch)?
Patrick Creadon: We have a joke at
our production office that goes something like this: We're very proud of the
film we made, and the 14 people who eventually see it will appreciate all the
hard work we've put into it. Yes, economics is a hard sell for a general audience.
We've been aware of that from the day we started making I.O.U.S.A. At the same time, the US economy has become the number
one issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. In fact, financial matters-and the
state of the world economy-have become the biggest story in the world in 2008. The
audience for this film is growing every day.
We had a sneak preview screening at a financial conference in late July in Vancouver, and expected
around 400 people to show up. Thirteen hundred people eventually crammed their
way into the theater, sitting in the aisles and standing in the back of the
room to watch the film. When David Walker was introduced for the Q and A
afterward, he received a standing ovation.
IDA: Speaking of your man-on-the-street interviews, your subjects were, with
one exception, grossly unaware of economics and the American economy. Was that
truly representative of the interviewees, or were there others who understood
the conditions, but were left on the cutting-room floor?
PC: Our country suffers from a very profound fiscal
illiteracy. The man-on-the-street interviews are an honest representation of
what average Americans know about this topic. Occasionally we met people who
knew this story well, but inevitably they either worked in the financial
industry or for the federal government in Washington,
DC. It's worth noting that we
conducted those interviews across the country in about ten different locations,
including Los Angeles, Omaha,
Chicago, New York,
Seattle and Washington, DC.
Overall I can say that the average American has no idea how bad this situation
is. Furthermore, they don't want to hear about it because they don't understand
IDA: Other than news footage of President George W. Bush, you had no
in-person interviews with the president. Did you request interviews with him? What
kind of response did you receive from the White House?
PC: We never approached the White House about
interviews. Instead we spoke to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill about
his 22 months in the Bush administration. His interview is my favorite in the
film. He speaks very candidly about getting fired from Treasury for having a
difference of opinion. In November 2002 he told the administration that he
didn't think the country could afford a third tax cut. This was not a popular
position in the White House and it led to a discussion with the vice president
in which Cheney asserted that "deficits don't matter." Within weeks
O'Neill was fired and 2003 became, in the opinion of many in Washington, the most fiscally irresponsible
year in American history. In one 12-month period the Bush administration and a
Republican-led Congress implemented the third (and largest) tax cut, which was
aimed primarily at the wealthy; signed into law the Medicare D program (which
was the largest expansion of an entitlement program since the 1960s); and went
to war in Iraq.
With the exception of Senators Kent Conrad (D) and Judd Gregg (R), who are the
two highest ranking members of the Senate Budget Committee, and Congressman Ron
Paul (R) from Texas,
who sits on the House Financial Services Committee, we chose not to speak to
sitting members of Congress or the White House staff. Instead we spoke to
people who knew this story well but are not currently in office. These people
include former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former Congressional Budget
Office Director Alice Rivlin, former Commerce Secretary Peter G. Peterson, and
former Federal Reserve Chairmen Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan. Warren Buffett
also appears in the film.
IDA: Was Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke unavailable to comment? Why
was he not interviewed?
PC: Sitting Fed Chairmen are reluctant to give
interviews outside of Congressional testimonies. Months ago Bernanke made some
off-the-record comments to CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo. She reported the
conversation and the markets moved dramatically as a result. It's worth noting
that over the past 30 years, there have been only three Fed Chairmen, and two
of them-whose combined tenure is 27 years-are in I.O.U.S.A..
IDA: Why doesn't this film have an immediate run on a medium that has a
larger viewing audience, such as network or cable television?
PC: It was always our intention to bring the film
to theaters first. We believe that will help it attain a higher profile than if
we went straight to television first. That said, we have a planned television
release on PBS' Independent Lens in
January that will include a large grassroots outreach program designed to
further raise the profile of the film and the issue.
IDA: Do you plan to screen I.O.U.S.A. at schools and colleges?
PC: David Walker, the seventh comptroller general
of the United States and the
star of I.O.U.S.A., has said
repeatedly that he hopes to get the film screened in every high school in America.
If anyone could get that done, it's him; he's a very resourceful and passionate
man. We also have college campus screenings planned throughout the fall.
IDA: Was the film's subject matter a hard sell for theatrical distributors?
PC: The subject matter did present challenges, but
that never deterred us. We knew early on that it was a great topic and that
2008 would be the best time for it to hit theaters. I had a conversation with
Sundance Film Festival Director Geoff Gilmore in December, about five weeks
before Sundance. We had already been accepted to the American Documentary
Competition, but I was very concerned that the film wouldn't be done in time
for the festival in January. He put his hand on my shoulder and said,
"Patrick, you may not be ready to show this film, but the country
is more than ready to see this film." He added with a smile,
"So hurry up."
not our first experience with a tough-sell topic. When we were making Wordplay in 2005, we were told by
several colleagues that a documentary film about crossword puzzles was the worst
idea they had ever heard. Wordplay went
on to sell for $1 million at Sundance in 2006 and became the second-highest
grossing documentary that year. Two years later we set to work on a film about
the national debt and macroeconomics. Our agent John Sloss laughs, saying we've
become something of a brand: We choose topics that can't possibly play on the
big screen, and then we try to prove the skeptics wrong.
Congressman Ron Paul, from Patrick Creadon's I.O.U.S.A.
(Prods.: Christine O'Malley, Sarah Gibson). Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
IDA: I'm sure I.O.U.S.A. has been
compared to An Inconvenient Truth, which
first introduced the concept of global warming to Americans in a way that they
could understand. Your film has the same educational component, but I wonder
about "economy fatigue." Do you think that will affect
PC: The problem with so much of today's news
coverage about the economy is that it flies right over a general audience's
head. We wrote and designed the film for a very wide audience in the hopes that
it will make the topic and these issues more accessible to more people. There
has been a very enthusiastic response from audiences thanking us for demystifying
a complex subject.
IDA: Is there anything that was left on the cutting room floor that you
would have liked to have been in the film? Will there be deleted scenes and
extras on the DVD?
PC: The film features the combined wisdom of over
500 years of experience from some of the greatest economic minds of our time. Obviously
there is a lot of material we would have liked to include that we couldn't
because of time constraints. The DVD will include a lot of additional interviews
and graphics, along with a more in-depth discussion of possible solutions to
IDA: Do you have any plans to do a sequel or follow-up when the new administration
takes office in 2009?
PC: We would like to devote a large effort to exploring
more solutions, but as of yet we have no official plan to go back into
production on that.
IDA: Is there
anything you'd like to add that I haven't covered?
PC: Ultimately we made the film for five people: Barack
Obama, John McCain and our three daughters. Our next president needs to
understand that their electorate will support them if they choose to tackle
this issue. The time has finally come for true leadership and for dramatic and
sweeping tax reform, health care reform and major entitlement reform. And we
want our children to know that this one issue is the single biggest challenge
that their generation will face. If we as a country choose not to address this
fiscal cancer, the next generation will inherit a government that it can't
afford. It's a classic case of taxation without representation, and history has
shown again and again that that rarely ends well.
Former Documentary magazine editor Kathleen Fairweather just passed the torch and camera to her daughter Daryl, an economics major at MIT, who made her first doc, Foreclosed: A Homeowner's Story. Kathleen can be reached at email@example.com.