Houses of faith may soon be listing show times in their weekly schedules.
Rev. Robin Hood protests a Wal-Mart in Chicago. (Brave New Films)
Not only are churches being targeted for the fall release of "Left Behind: World at War," but they'll also figure into the distribution plan for the upcoming documentary "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price."
The new documentary from Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films takes on the world's largest retailer, which posted more than a quarter of a trillion in sales for the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2005. Greenwald has produced several high-profile and socially relevant documentaries like "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" and "Uncovered: The Iraq War."
Greenwald's previous documentaries have used less traditional methods of distribution as well, but Brave New Films is seeking to take the "alternative distribution model" to a new level with "Wal-Mart."
"We don't rely on traditional distribution methods," Lisa Smithline, the company's vice-president of marketing and political distribution, told EthicsDaily.com on the phone from her office in Culver City, Calif.
"We use what we call an alternative distribution model, which is to distribute through multiple organizations and on-the-ground activists, including churches, teachers, universities, family business people, etc.," she said. "They become our Warner Bros. or Universal—our distribution arm."
The documentary is still being edited, but running time will likely be around 90 minutes. When completed, Brave New Films doesn't even intend to strike film prints, which are expensive. Instead, it will start where other film's end—on home formats like DVD and VHS.
Greenwald and company will begin shipping out the documentary in mid November, just in time for "premiere week," which begins Sunday, Nov. 13. The filmmakers are urging various groups across the world to sign up to host screenings.
For $10, registered groups or individuals will receive the documentary and a "hosting kit." Unlike most other films on DVD and VHS, this documentary comes with a public license, meaning the filmmakers want it to be shown often and to large audiences.
"We try to make it as easy as possible to take the movie and run with it," Jim Gilliam, one of the documentary's producers, told EthicsDaily.com on the phone. Gilliam said Brave New Films must work hard to explain to people that the filmmakers have already given their permission to show the film for large events.
"The basic strategy is that we don't want people to have to spend $10 to get into a theater to see this movie," said Gilliam. Instead, one group can spend $10 for the hosting kit and DVD, and then invite as many people as possible.
A key group for this distribution model is the house of faith. Smithline's background, in fact, is in organizing in the faith community.
"I've done interfaith organizing work," she said. "Because I come from that background, the religious faith tradition and faith-based organizing has been very strong with our film."
During premiere week, each day has a theme. One day targets political activists groups, another focuses on teachers and students. Premiere day, however, is Sunday, and is themed "A Moral Approach."
They're hoping "churches, faith based groups, and anyone concerned with moral corporate behavior," according to the documentary's Web site, will consider screening the film as a way to talk about the issues "Wal-Mart" raises.
"Talking about poverty and the global economy are moral issues," said Smithline, adding that as of mid-August, more than 500 churches, synagogues or mosques had signed up to host screenings. She hopes that number will double before November.
Several clergy members also appear in the film, discussing Wal-Mart's moral responsibilities.
Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor who currently serves as executive director of Los Angeles-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, sees the documentary as critical to her organization's mission.
"We respond to the crisis of working poverty," she said on the phone. CLUE is part of a larger network of organizations devoted to economic justice. They support low-wage workers in their struggle for a living wage, health benefits and a general voice in the decision-making process.
"We do a lot of work on Wal-Mart," said Salvatierra, adding that Wal-Mart's entry-level workers in the Los Angeles area earn $7/hour.
"You cannot feed your family and pay rent," she said. "We think that's a disgrace and a moral crisis."
Wal-Mart has been subjected to intense media scrutiny before. A 2004 "Frontline" show on PBS examined the company, as did a 2003 series of articles by the Los Angeles Times, which went on to earn a Pulitzer.
Wal-Mart has countered negative attention by launching a Web site, walmartfacts.com, that seeks to debunk and defend arguments against the big-box retailer, which counts more than 3,600 stores in the United States and more than 1,500 more overseas.
"We think this is the kind of film that needs to be neighbors showing it to neighbors, congregants showing it to other congregants," said Salvatierra. A number of churches in CLUE's network are already committed to screening the documentary.
The CLUE network is just one example of hundreds of organizations that Brave New Films is tapping into for its "Wal-Mart" distribution pattern.
Smithline sees this kind of strategy as "a mutually beneficial plan," wherein Brave New Films can get its product and message out, and people who care about issues raised in the documentary can have this narrative tool at their disposal.
Smithline also thinks this type of alternative distribution will become increasingly more common.
"I hope greatly that it's a model that people will replicate," she said, noting that media production has become more accessible and affordable, and now media distribution is also being reformed in some ways.
Gilliam echoed those sentiments.
"It's really empowering," he said. "The technology is all there. You're really empowered to just get your movie seen."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Watch the "Frontline" documentary "Is Wal-Mart Good for America" online here.
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