When future histories look back at the radical changes currently afoot in the film industry, Robert Greenwald will warrant more than a footnote. Driven by a passionate urgency, he has introduced an entirely new distribution model with his documentaries Unprecedented, Uncovered, and now, Outfoxed: Straight to DVD, straight to the people. On the eve of the theatrical premiere of Outfoxed after 100,000 copies have been sold on DVD, Jonathan Marlow caught up with the very busy, very dedicated director.
Jonathan Marlow: I suspect that most of the conversations you're having right now are centered on the "Un-trilogy" or Outfoxed, but I wanted to start by asking you about a few films from a little earlier in your career. You started directing work for television before you ended up making what I consider to be a criminally underrated movie, Xanadu. How were you offered that film?
Robert Greenwald: It's so long ago. Do you really want to go into that stuff?
Marlow: I honestly do!
Greenwald: I was hired by a producer. I'd done some television films and he liked my work so he hired me. You know, it was so long ago that it's hard to have any emotional connection to it.
Marlow: To put this in perspective, until last week on the GreenCine site, there were two listings for "Robert Greenwald" - you as the director and/or producer of these documentaries and you as the director of Xanadu and The Burning Bed. It was difficult for folks to imagine that you were one and the same person.
Marlow: The Burning Bed is still used as an example of what is possible in television drama. There appears to be a thread between that film and your more recent work. With the Un-films, starting with Unprecedented, you were the producer on that documentary?
Greenwald: On Unprecedented, yes.
Marlow: With Uncovered, you started this whole new distribution model. You began your effort with house parties.
Greenwald: Correct, we did the online selling and the house parties both.
Marlow: How did you come up with this notion initially?
Greenwald: Well, I wanted to do Uncovered quickly. I wanted to get it into people's hands while the issues of the day were still being debated. I didn't want to wait a couple of years. My partners in helping me finance it were MoveOn and the Center for American Progress. So it evolved organically. The thought was, "Well, I got the Center, which is so well-connected and influential in the media world. They could do some screenings of it and MoveOn could let their members know about it." That was the first step. We thought that maybe we'd sell 1,000 or 2,000 copies of Uncovered. In my dealings with MoveOn, who I think the world of, I rarely talk with them. They're all email people. I remember specifically that we went out with it Monday morning, the same night that we were screening it in DC for the premiere. I created an online premiere at the same time as the theatrical premiere. I remember Wes Boyd [co-founder of MoveOn.org] called me two hours after they offered it and they'd sold 7,000 or 8,000 copies. Within three days, they sold 25,000 copies online and raised almost one million dollars for anti-Bush ads. That was the real hint that we were on to something. With that success and with the response of the people who had seen the movie, it continued to build. MoveOn - I think that it was essentially maybe Eli [Pariser's] idea - decided to go to the next step and do house parties, where people could come together, see the movie, have a discussion. This was when we were not a majority of the country yet on the war. Bringing people together served a very positive organizing function.
Marlow: The silent majority, in a sense.
Greenwald: Well, we didn't know it back then!
Marlow: How many house parties were involved in Uncovered?
Greenwald: I think that it was about 2,500 to 2,600. It was a lot.
Marlow: So you increased it by more than a thousand for Outfoxed.
Greenwald: Was it that many? I thought that Outfoxed was around 3,000. I'm not sure what the numbers were.
Marlow: The number that I have was 3,700.
Greenwald: It's amazing that in one night something like, I don't know, twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five thousand people come together in people's homes around the country and watch a film.
Marlow: It was initially thought, judging from the article in the New York Times a few days before the DVD release, that Outfoxed would not have a theatrical release. Now, thanks to the efforts of Cinema Libre, it will open in four cities this week - San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Were you honestly not expecting theatrical for this documentary?
Greenwald: The important thing is that we don't need a theatrical release anymore. More people watch movies on DVD. It's quicker, it's cheaper. There was a big breakthrough with Outfoxed, where the New York Times's primary reviewer, [A.O.] Scott, did a major review of it based on a house party [screening], not a movie theater. The way to look at it is radically different now. We look at as, "Finishing the film, getting it to as many people as possible." There are multiple ways to do this. The first and most important is the Internet and DVDs. Then there is Amazon and stores. Then there are the DVD rental services. Then there's cable and then theatrical. Theatrical is nice. I like having the name of the movie up in lights but it's no longer by any means essential to get people to see the film.
Marlow: You're absolutely right. Perhaps more than any film in recent memory, Uncovered really proves that there is a market for timely documentary work that doesn't need theatrical to develop an audience. Ultimately, you've sold in excess of 130,000 copies of the disc.
Greenwald: Right, and we're going to announce today on Outfoxed that we've sold 100,000 in under two weeks.
Marlow: That's exceptional. This isn't just unconventional distribution systems. You've also priced it in such a way that it makes it attractive for people to own it.
Greenwald: That's the thing. We have MoveOn and the Center for American Progress to thank for that because they provided some funds that allows us to do that.
Marlow: I noticed in the press release that you want to provide free admission to anyone from Fox that wants to attend these screenings?
Greenwald: You know, we want them to have true "fair and balanced" news. Also, there has been an enormous response, I've been told from all of my sources internally of people within Fox News. There are a lot of good people who work there, not just the people who gave me lots of the material in the film, but there are others. There are other people who want to talk to us; there are people there who really are news people and are ashamed at what they are being forced to do. I want to give all of them a chance to come and see the film. I've also offered to Fox News that we'd be happy to give it to them for free to put on and then we'll have a debate about it.
Marlow: Has Bill O'Reilly approached you at all to speak about the film on his show?
Greenwald: He hasn't. We've asked him to go on a neutral show and debate it but he hasn't taken us up yet.
Marlow: That would be interesting. A neutral show as opposed to O'Reilly's own show, which is obviously structured to prevent any level of fairness for anyone with a differing viewpoint. I noticed, in the background of one of the interviews in Outfoxed, a photograph that showed a marquee for what I imagine was the opening night of another film - Steal this Movie!
Greenwald: Very observant!
Marlow: I didn't make the connection initially. I thought, "Why is that particular picture on the wall?" Where did that interview take place? Was this your office?
Greenwald: It's my office in Los Angeles.
Marlow: Sadly, the film never received the attention that perhaps it should have. It never quite found its audience.
Greenwald: Yes. We didn't have alternative distribution [when Steal this Movie! was released] which would have been the great way to do it.
Marlow: Part of the direction of where Robert Greenwald Productions is headed is, due to the expediency of digital technology - the ability to shoot and edit films quickly - driven your productions?
Greenwald: Well, I think it starts from the content. There are stories that I want to tell that are immediate in nature. This perfect storm of technology driving costs down and political interest have come together. It's not driven by the technology, exactly. To me, it's more driven by, "I want to do a movie about the war." We don't want to spend a lot of money, we want to do it inexpensively and we want to reach people. This is the way to do it. I think that's been the way that it's proceeded and I've discovered along the way that it's extraordinarily exciting. There are great opportunities and, much to my amazement, I am helping to create a model that hopefully will be useful to others.
Marlow: I met with the folks from Cinema Libre a few weeks ago and, at that time, they were only (at least publicly) preparing for the theatrical release of an extended version of Uncovered to theaters in late August. Now they've jump-started this process by releasing Outfoxed first. What is the timeline for Unconstitutional, the third Un-film?
Greenwald: On September 13th, it will premiere in Austin,Texas, with the ACLU sponsoring it.
Marlow: It will then follow the same distribution cycle as Uncovered and Outfoxed?
Greenwald: A little bit different but basically the same idea.
Marlow: And also available for sale around that same time?
Marlow: I didn't realize that it was nearly finished. With Unconstitutional completed in the next several weeks, what's on the horizon after that?
Greenwald: The next couple of months I'm committed to basically putting all of my time getting the films into the world, which means working on these different distribution models and different platforms and doing as much speaking and publicizing about them as much as I possibly can. By the middle of September, all of the Un-movies will been launched and Outfoxed will have had its most significant impact. Then I'll take a breather and try to figure out what's next.
Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism opened theaterically on Friday, August 6, in San Francisco at the Roxie Cinema and in New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC, followed by selected cities around the country. The film is being distributed by Cinema Libre Distribution, which is also distributing Greenwald's Uncovered: The War on Iraq, opening in theaters August 20.