The Big Ones

Michael Moore and Spider-Man fight evil in two new summer blockbusters

Moore's Internet audio appearance ended the chatter before it could grow too diffuse. Introduced by MoveOn executive director Eli Pariser as "the greatest documentary filmmaker of our time," Moore opened by congratulating the partygoers. "All of us together this weekend participated in something that was historic," he glowed. "Not just the box office, but what was happening in the theaters . . . Theater owners say they have to add time between shows, because people want to stay around and talk." For Moore, this indicated that people "are dying for a chance to do something, even if it means just going to a movie." Moore suggested that listeners could go to theaters and "make use of this incredible time" by setting up voter registration tables.

Using movies as a means of political activism is, of course, not a new phenomenon. In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War, Erik Barnouw produced the gruesomely explicit documentary Hiroshima-Nagasaki, August 1945, using recently declassified WW II footage of human victims taken in the Japanese cities days after the attack. After the premiere on then new public television on the 25th anniversary of the bombings, thousands of 16mm prints of the film were distributed to libraries, schools, and other groups; its impact inspired a generation of anti-nuclear filmmakers.

Since then, grassroots media activism has become a key goal in distribution for a number of independent documentaries. In the last few years, nonprofit organizations like Working Films and MediaRights were created to bring social-issue documentaries into community groups, educational settings, and other prime advocacy locales. For example, with Sandi DuBowski's 2001 portrait of gay Orthodox Jews, Trembling Before G-d, Working Films organized a tour of Christian church groups, synagogues, interfaith religious groups, and even Florida retirement homes.

Moore has encouraged similar activities for all of his documentaries, but with a crucial difference: Since he has always worked with major distribution, the political actions created around each film become inseparable from commercial publicity and marketing, a melding of public and private interest that some find unsettling.

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Bush in a Florida classroom the morning of September 11
Dog Eat Dog Films
In the wake of the indie success of Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape, Moore's first film, the GM-bashing Roger & Me, was purchased by Warner Bros. in 1989 for $3 million, an unprecedented figure for a documentary. Several news reports about the acquisition noted that Moore demanded, as part of the deal, that Warners give away 20,000 tickets to the unemployed, and that the film be shown for free at union halls and business schools. These details were publicized to the press alongside a more traditionally snarky movie-marketing stunt: Warners claimed that an empty seat would be left at every screening for GM chairman Roger Smith—who never attended.

At preview screenings of his 1997 anti-globalization film, The Big One, each held to benefit local political and social organizations, Moore handed out 80-cent checks, meant to reflect the hourly wages of overseas sweatshop workers; the distributor, Miramax, stated that it would donate half of the film's profits to Moore's impoverished hometown of Flint, Michigan.

During the run of Bowling for Columbine, Moore hosted on his website an anti-war petition and a "Wal-Mart Is Nothing Without Its Customers" petition demanding that the retailer stop selling ammunition. In response, conservative groups started online petitions to revoke his Oscar after Moore won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

After Columbine's strong opening weekend, Britain's The Guardian noted that its success "may be in no small way due to thousands of e-mails sent by the director himself urging people to attend as a way of demonstrating their opposition to President Bush and his plans for war in Iraq." The paper went on to observe that "the mobilization of an audience by e-mail has been used by conservative Christian groups for the recently successful genre of apocalyptic Christian fundamentalist movies."

The similarities between Michael Moore and fundamentalist Christians didn't stop with Columbine's e-mail blasts. Just as moveon.org sponsored a voter-registration drive off the success of Fahrenheit 9/11, numerous Christian organizations capitalized on the Passion of the Christ phenomenon for evangelical purposes. Outreach, Inc., a private company whose Web-stated mission is to "further the Kingdom of God by empowering Christian churches to reach their communities for Jesus Christ," created a special website, thepassionoutreach.com, to exploit what they called "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2000 years."

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A hawk shoots for an eagle: Bush works on his swing.
Dog Eat Dog Films
Moore's official site lists numerous ways activists can "Do Something" to register voters, alongside links to purchase Moore's books and buy Fahrenheit 9/11 tickets. Similarly, ThePassionOutreach provides pastors with 13 "Outreach Ideas" for using Mel Gibson's film to convert nonbelievers, plus "Outreach Passion Products" like Passion-themed scriptures, postcards, and pamphlets.

The accumulation of social activity around film releases like Fahrenheit and The Passion, planned or otherwise, is a logical extension of how moviegoing cultures evolved during the rise of the Internet. By the late '90s, every blockbuster worth its legs had numerous fan-written sites, online promotions, Yahoo groups, and LiveJournal shout-outs. Spider-Man 2has the added bonus of tapping into comic book lovers, superhero fan networks, and rabid admirers of Tobey Maguire; Sony marketers no doubt helped provide trailers, clips, exclusive pictures, and other digital promo goodies to numerous sites like Spiderfan.org, Spider-Mans Tangled Web, Tobey Maguire Fan ("Your source for all things Tobey!"), and The Spider Man 2 Online Shrine.

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