Reel Life: Marketing Outfoxed and The End of Suburbia

18 mins read

Perils today seem to be multiplying as rapidly as a warren of rabbits on Viagra. The curse of interesting times has always meant bigger audiences for serious artists and with the proliferation of inexpensive but professional film and video equipment, documentary filmmakers are propitiously positioned to catch a new wave of interest in their work. That the movement away from frivolity and toward the hard questions of survival now seems all but certain to define our zeitgeist and meshes perfectly with the recent DOC Salon initiative in Toronto. Equal parts screening, panel, and Q & A, the Salon’s mandate is to “celebrate the art of documentaries that spotlight the issues of our time” by provoking “debate and discussion about politics, humanity, art and the media.”

The brainchild of Sally Blake of Chocolate Box Entertainment who got her inspiration from the Salon soirées that were popular in the 19th Century, these gatherings are intended to be a melting pot of interesting people with forceful ideas, happy to engage in lively debate in a comfortable and informal social setting. The premium then as now was to host the broadest possible spectrum of opinion so as to have a chance to air out the differing views on timely and pressing issues. The Salons are a volunteer run initiative planned and executed by Sally Blake, Lalita Krishna, Gita Hosek and Tina Hahn. They plan to screen three to four films a year and keep their focus on issues that are highly topical as well as of direct relevance to local citizens.

The inaugural DOC Salon screening was of Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed, a cheeky deconstruction of what some call the Faux News Network. Moderated by CBC’s Suhana Meharchand, the panel featured Derek Miller of CP24, Jonathan Kay from The National Post, Stuart Coxe of CBC, Charlie Gillis of Maclean’s and Paul Jay, indie doc maker, founding spirit of Hot Docs and the nascent Independent World Television News Network. According to Ms. Blake, the evening went well and the panel presented, as hoped, both an articulate dissent as well as consent with the film’s thesis. In her view, however, despite Jonathan Kay’s well- spoken defense of corporate ownership, which in his view makes the press less prone to “special interest bias,” it seemed that the majority of the audience was firmly in the other camp.

Greenwald’s intention was to make the damning case that Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Network has stopped being a news organization and become instead an extension of the Republican party’s political machinery. He further set out to substantiate the claim that the concentration of 90% of television news media ownership into just seven companies has led to a situation where the journalist’s informal credo, “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” has been replaced with the modus operandi of “stenographers to power.” If you are, like me, already on board with this message, you will love Outfoxed for the wonderful lampooning it does to such bloviators as Hannity & Colmes and most especially of the ‘Bloviator in Chief’ himself, Mr. Bill “Shut-up” O’Reilly. If, on the other hand, you are a devoted watcher of Fox News, you’re unlikely to make it through more than five minutes of such “liberal bias,” and even if you do, it is likely you will remain unconvinced. The very things that those already in the choir most enjoy about the film guarantee that its appeal will remain mostly limited to the already converted.

Outfoxed supplies little historical context to the current downward trend of mainstream journalism and, as a result, makes the mistaken inference that before Fox there was a Golden Age of journalism where everything really was fair and balanced. The more sobering truth of the matter is that, irrespective of the country or time, the majority of the press rallies around the flag in times of war and crisis. It can be dangerously unpopular to do otherwise. There is also the not inconsiderable motivation of just how profitable it can be for the media to wrap itself in the flag. Something that Fox has once again proven in spades. This combination of aggressive nationalism and the prioritization of profit over journalism has been characteristic of major media in the United States since at least the time when Murdoch’s spiritual forefather, William Randolph Hearst, successfully promoted the invasion of Cuba through his newspapers. Treated as being just as scandalous by his rivals and critics of the time as Fox is today, Hearst, was imitated as much as he was criticized.

Another very significant fact that Outfoxed never touches upon is that a greater percentage of our wired world than ever before knows propaganda when it sees it. That goes a long way to explaining the differences even in the U.S. between Vietnam and Iraq. In the ’60s, it was possible to conduct a war that attracted virtually zero attention for close to a decade despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians. By contrast the invasion of Iraq led to massive public protests before the first bomb even dropped. An occurrence unique in the annals of Western colonial wars.

Despite its limitations, Outfoxed clearly illustrates that even if things are not much worse than they were when the mainstream press was “reporting” the attack on the Main or the Gulf of Tonkin incident, they are also not appreciably better. And it does so in a way that is very entertaining to watch if you’re on the right, or should I say left, side of its thesis. It also makes a very strong case that Fox News would do its listeners a public service if it were to change its tag line from “Fair and Balanced” to the one that the judge used to summarize the law suit that the network brought against Al Franken: “Wholly and utterly without merit.”

The second film on tap at the Salon was the Electric Wallpaper Company’s under-the-radar hit, The End of Suburbia (EOS). When it was first released in the spring of 2004, EOS was seemingly that most unfortunate of docs, the niche less film. For despite a vigorous and targeted marketing campaign to what would seem its natural constituency, the environmental and activist communities, the film came out of the gate with all the fanfare of the proverbial tree in the forest. Where were the people who grew up in or experienced the suburbs and would be interested in a critical look at how it had all grown wrong?

To put it politely this put the project in somewhat of a quandary as the film had been made using the credit cards of director Greg Greene and producer Barry Silverthorn. What were they to do with no reaction from those they had thought to be their target audience and no distribution deal? The obvious, and perhaps only, answer was to do what they did. Go back to their paying gigs, see what festivals they could get into, keep chipping away and hope for the best. With a relatively modest sales goal of 10,000 DVDs within a year or so and enough cash flow to stave off the wolves in the near term there was no reason to panic, yet. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the festival forum.

Suddenly people from the “peak oil community” were emailing, asking to do screenings of the film and wondering if it would be possible to get a few DVDs of EOS for resale. “Hell yes!” and “At least someone gets my film,” was Greene’s reaction to this initial trickle of interest. Ironically, Greene had thought this community, the peakniks so to speak, was more than a bit barmy when first approached about the project. And yet here they were, providing the crack in the dyke of indifference that has led to a veritable flood of requests for the film.

While shooting, Greene quickly got up to speed on peak oil and what it might mean to the future of the planet. The peaknik community’s principle point is tough to argue: oil and natural gas are finite. They further point out that every oil field moves from initial strike, through to a peak in production, before heading into decline and the nadir of the last abandoned well. Their ultimate conclusion is that this progression from first, to many, to the last barrel of production is unavoidable. Whether one is speaking about a single well, field or an oil producing province or nation, that’s true. And it must eventually be true of our planet as a whole.

Today the geologists and geophysicists who inform this community are providing very compelling data and analysis indicating that the peak of global oil production is likely to occur within the next five to ten years. After peak, production will likely decline at somewhere around 2% to 3% per annum. To the peak oil social theorists, this zero sum game means that despite the fact that we still have, by all accounts, a lot of oil left, one trillion barrels give or take, man oh man, is it ever going to be expensive!

To justify this conclusion they point to the way we’ve organized our globalized 12,000 mile supply line markets. Our urban sprawl is based on a car dependent society. Equally important to this analysis is the fact that most of the remaining oil is of lower quality and much harder to access. Both facts mean extra expense will be associated with it. For North Americans, they toss in the chilling addendum that natural gas production is likely already in decline for the continent. (The price of natural gas has quadrupled since 2001.)

It’s easy to appreciate Greene’s initial impressions and reservations about all this and the activist community that has sprung up around these ideas. But reservations or no, his marketing efforts to conservation groups and media groups like Adbusters had failed to elicit even a yawn whereas these folks were spreading the news about his film like wildfire. At first Greene and producer Barry Silverthorn tried to keep track of all the screenings, in part to advertise them through postings on their website but also to try and keep some semblance of control over their creation. This task soon mushroomed to more than a full-time job and Greene admits that in the interest of sanity and a few more hours of sleep, they finally had to give up and let EOS have a life of its own.

“So far there have been over two thousand screenings that I know about and possibly that many again or more that I don’t know about,” admits Greene. “There’s just no way to tell.” DVD sales have now shot over 24,000 and websites like From the Wilderness and The Post Carbon Institute along with the EOS site are keeping sales at around 1,000 a month. The peak oil community screenings also show no sign of abating as there are 22 upcoming ones across North America currently listed on their site.

The Internet has changed the rules of sales, distribution and marketing in ways that are as hard to codify as they are easy to see. The End of Suburbia, like Outfoxed, describes a substantive peril to “life as we know it” or at least to life as we thought we knew it. The latter took on a high profile target that a lot of people love to hate and was an overnight sensation with a very high name recognition, especially for a documentary film. This was achieved thanks to a very effective use of the power of the Internet and the appeal Outfoxed has for the alt-news networks. It also didn’t hurt that it gave all levels of the Democratic party a way to satisfyingly push back against their current overlords who are making dismaying use of their control of the three levels of the U.S. government.

EOS, on the other hand, began with a low profile issue, few media connections, no major political constituency and debuted with next to no interest. But what it had—that it did not know it had —was a constituency that did not know it was a constituency. (This is one success they will not be turning into a formula.) Its success began at the very lowest levels of a grassroots movement in the midst of forming itself. EOS has significantly contributed to the galvanization of that movement. In fact, I cannot think of another documentary that has had this level of impact on a broad based social movement. And while Outfoxed has likely pretty much run its course, The End of Suburbia, the little doc that could, gives every indication of just getting started.

It will be very interesting to see if Greenwald’s and Greene’s next projects, Wal-Mart and Escape from Suburbia, will be able to maintain and grow their audience and make as effective use of the alternative distribution and marketing methods as made possible by the Internet and the on-line activist communities that proliferate there. And to all North Americans who experience winter, I suggest you also pay close attention to natural gas prices for they seem to be suggesting that there may be a new wolf on the prowl.

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