Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The beginning of the era of the campaign movie
I think it’s safe to say we won this round.

Michael Moore’sFahrenheit 9/11 opened to sold out theaters last week and by the end of the weekend was already the top moneymaking documentary of all time. It took only three days to beat the entire American theatrical run of the previous record holder, Moore’s previous film Bowling for Columbine. Fahrenheit 9/11 was not only the top moneymaking documentary, it was the top moneymaking movie of any type last weekend. In beating out the entertainment movies it became the first documentary to debut at number one, and it did this during the most competitive season of the year. Halfway through the weekend the film had taken in enough to pay off its production and marketing costs and was generating pure profit.

This was all accomplished in the face of efforts by right-wingers to silence the movie. The best organized of these was by the faux grassroots group called "Move America Forward." MAF is the creation of the public relations firm Russo, Marsh & Rogers, the firm behind the “Recall Gray Davis Committee” and longtime veterans of California Republican politics. By complaining to theaters, MAF was able to make sure Fahrenheit 9/11 “only” opened in 868 theaters, the most for any documentary in history. Other right-wingers tried hate mail, death threats, and pickets to stop the movie from being seen. They failed.

While some right-wingers are content to gnash their teeth and blog about how oppressed they are by the thought that people might be allowed to hear words they disagree with, others are moving forward with plans C, D, E, and F.
Michael Moore may be prevented from advertising his controversial new movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” on television or radio after July 30 if the Federal Election Commission (FEC) today accepts the legal advice of its general counsel.

At the same time [Citizens United], a Republican-allied 527 soft-money group is preparing to file a complaint against Moore’s film with the FEC for violating campaign-finance law.

In a draft advisory opinion placed on the FEC’s agenda for today’s meeting, the agency’s general counsel states that political documentary filmmakers may not air television or radio ads referring to federal candidates within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election.

The opinion is generated under the new McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which prohibits corporate-funded ads that identify a federal candidate before a primary or general election.

The proscription is broadly defined. Section 100.29 of the federal election regulations defines restricted corporate-funded ads as those that identify a candidate by his “name, nickname, photograph or drawing” or make it “otherwise apparent through an unambiguous reference.”

By then millions will have seen the movie and most Americans will be aware of it and its message. Citizens United’s victory will be more symbolic than real. Moore will still be able to advertise and show the film, he just won’t be allowed to show Bush in the ads.

The next strategy is my favorite because it so reeks of grade school. It’s the “we don’t need your stupid movie; we have our own movie and it’s better” strategy.
The day after Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 was released in American cinemas, it was announced yesterday that a festival devoted to films debunking Moore's own work will be staged later this year in Texas.

The American Film Renaissance has the backing of 'some big-time conservative donors', according to its organizers, and will feature up to 10 films, among them Michael Moore Hates America - a so-called exposé of the director's working methods, by filmmaker Michael Wilson.

This strategy is also great because everyone can join in.
In Sacramento the conservative group Move America Forward, whose Web site criticizes "Fahrenheit 9/11," organized an advance screening of the Disney documentary "America's Heart and Soul," due in theaters on July 2. That film, directed by Louis Schwartzberg, celebrates ordinary Americans and, Disney says, their extraordinary stories. "Disney brought the movie, rented the theater and even paid for the popcorn," Howard Kaloogian, the chairman of Move America Forward, said. "It's a very patriotic film," he continued. "It's in the finest tradition of inspiring Disney movies."

Notice that this movie is not meant to be pro-Bush or anti-Moore or anything political at all. The right wing needed something to adopt as “their” movie and America's Heart and Soul will be the unwitting, and no doubt grateful, beneficiary (and I say good for them). While Schwartzberg might have reservations about being thrown into someone else’s fight, other films have far fewer scruples about taking advantage of the controversy to sell a tickets or videos. Richard Bartholomew of Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion received this announcement from the Christian Bookseller’s Association:
George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, which premiered at CBA Convention, will air on network television in September and may release in theaters later this summer as a contrast to the negative Fahrenheit 9/11.

This is the start of something big. Moore caught the Right off guard this year, but that won’t happen again. In the next election cycle we can expect to see pro-Conservative and anti-Liberal documentaries paid for by Scaife, Ahmanson, Olin, Coors, and Bradley foundation money. These will not be shabby Vince Foster murder exposes on grainy video. These will be slick and well produced. After all, this is America; we make the best propaganda on the planet. Period.

It’s interesting to consider that the two biggest advances in campaigning—harnessing the internet and the feature documentary—were both to the benefit of Democrats and the Left. For over twenty years we have played catch-up with the conservative media machine. Suddenly we lapped them twice. I don’t think this was just a couple of lucky breaks. We finally have our act together. It could be temporary, but it feels good and a lot of people will be working to preserve that feeling.

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