The Big Ones


Spider-Man and Michael Moore: fellow do-gooders or mortal enemies? Questions of box office competition aside, a posting on film geek Harry Knowles’s popular Ain’t It Cool News website suggests that at least one movie fan thinks the latter. In response to Knowles’s supportive review of Fahrenheit 9/11, a true believer with the screen name “spidey2k” warned Knowles to “kepp [sic] your fat ass political views out of an ‘Entertainment’ site…  I didn’t realize that this website was taking [to] promoting ‘political’ propaganda. Shame on you Harry.”

Spidey2k’s meager yelp of digital protest is unlikely to affect the process already under way that Fahrenheit 9/11 has helped ignite. For decades, cultural pundits have bemoaned the transformation of politics into entertainment. But now that Fahrenheit 9/11 has broken documentary records, taking in $23.9 million on its opening weekend, the world of entertainment is invading the realm of politics. It’s given hope to some that movie marketing, online fan networks, and grassroots organizing might just converge into a Bush-seeking missile. It could also be the first stirring of a new category of high-concept Hollywood product: the activist blockbuster.

The Fahrenheit 9/11 poster
Dog Eat Dog Films

Moore understands correctly that if popular, leftist positions are going to enter the medium of mass entertainment, proponents will have to speak in the writ-large language of the blockbuster: good vs. evil, Jesus vs. Satan, Spidey vs. Doc Ock, America vs. Dubya. “Even though the kind of films Moore makes are a far cry from Spider-Man 2,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote last week in an article entitled “Top 10 Things Moore Did Right With Fahrenheit,” “it’s clear that he understands how important it is for a movie, especially a comic-book story driven movie, to have a colorful villain.” Unfortunately, our death-dealing leader answered Moore’s casting call all too well.

As pro-wrestling promoters and talk-show hosts have long known, it’s not just the creation of the villain that’s important. It’s how the medium uses the hero-villain dynamic to help discussion about the film spill over into the rest of the world: Internet chat rooms, op-ed pages, barroom arguments. Divisiveness spreads chatter: Which is better, Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2? Is Fahrenheit a documentary or is it propaganda?

But Fahrenheit has also turned this old formula on its head. For blockbusters like SM2, which set an opening-day record of $40.5 million in ticket sales, the outside buzz helps sell the movie. But for Moore, the movie is secondary to the discussion it fosters — in this case, instigating chatter means resituating the popular political discourse a few notches to the left. Just like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Moore has hitched a moral mission onto the engines of entertainment media.

Last Monday, some Americans got a taste of the new morality-based marketing. In New York, around 80 people crammed into a Centre Street loft. All had received the same e-mail. After a few business-card exchanges, they clustered around three iMacs, straining to hear the live webcast that reverberated from the tiny speakers. The boyishly voiced twentysomething online host gushed over the event’s success: Similar get-togethers were happening simultaneously across the country. “If we were all in one place right now,” he streamed, “we wouldn’t fit in a football stadium!” The crowd was there to get psyched about the revolutionary changes they’d be able to achieve in the very near future. Outwardly, they clapped optimistically; privately, they pondered their options.

A Secret Service officer confronts Moore outside the Saudi embassy, as seen in Fahrenheit 9/11.
Dog Eat Dog Films

No, this wasn’t the world’s last dotcom launch, tucked away like a hidden dinosaur canyon in some uncharted region of darkest Soho — for unlike the venture-capitalized vaporware medicine shows of the late ’90s, this event had a legitimate reason to exist. It was one of the reported 4,600 “house parties” thrown in conjunction with a live webcast interview with Michael Moore, organized by MoveOn’s political action committee to capitalize on the crowds still seething with Bush-hatred after Fahrenheit 9/11‘s top-slot opening weekend. The dot-org estimates that its Turn Up the Heat “town meeting” drew more than 55,000 party people. The goal of the evening was to rally volunteers for a July 11 phone-bank house-party event to register swing-state voters, and to brainstorm other ways to organize against Bush.

If MoveOn and Moore had hoped that the party might lure some folks who wouldn’t normally attend a political event, then judging by some of the Soho crowd, the strategy worked. “I’ve never been to something like this,” Phil, a media producer from Park Slope, confessed. “I’m usually around a lot of Republicans — lawyers and Wall Street types — so I thought this would be a great opportunity to get together with people and talk shit about Bush.”

And talk shit they did. Before the webcast, a MoveOn member named Al (“I just get the e-mails; I’m not part of the hierarchy”) led the group in an impromptu discussion of Fahrenheit 9/11. A vocal political-news junkie, Al moderated questions while quoting Republican-damning facts from a litany of leftist exposé writers — Alexander Cockburn, Paul Krugman, Amy Goodman — and, like a living blog, throwing out names of liberal websites along the way. “The Republicans are pros at the media, doing this sort of thing,” Al said. “They know how to make people think the government’s all good.” Others quickly joined in to debate how to protest the Republican National Convention, suggest the need to register voters in Harlem, and kvetch about Ralph Nader.

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.

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 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,, to exploit what they called “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2000 years.”

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 2 has 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, Spider-Mans Tangled Web, Tobey Maguire Fan (“Your source for all things Tobey!”), and The Spider Man 2 Online Shrine.

The standard interaction between online communities and blockbuster promotion provided the model for similar events in support of The Passion‘s cash-in and Fahrenheit‘s hot tickets. And it wasn’t just MoveOn that attempted tie-ins with Fahrenheit. Across the country, countless local Democrat boosters (as well as some anti-Moore activists) targeted Fahrenheit moviegoers outside theaters, usurping positions usually held by on-site promotion teams.

Naturally, Moore’s goals reach beyond mere ticket sales. MoveOn, Moore, and numerous leftist groups are leveraging the model of high-concept movie events to foster high-voter turnout, banking that a more broad-based vote will oust the Republican Green Goblins. Surely, at least some of the nonvoting American public will realize that going to the polls is as easy as going to the multiplex. Getting rid of Bush won’t solve all of society’s problems, of course. But hopefully, the success of Moore’s blockbuster activism will encourage box-office-hungry producers to back scores of shameless imitators.