- The Washington Times - Monday, October 12, 2009

Hoping to tap the rising tide of populist anger and activism on the right, husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney are bringing their new film, “Not Evil Just Wrong” — an answer to Al Gore’s global-warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth” — to as many people as possible through grass-roots screenings they’re calling “cinematic tea parties.”

These coordinated house-party screenings, scheduled for Oct. 18, are just one element in a unique marketing campaign that sidesteps traditional distribution avenues.

Mr. McAleer and Ms. McElhinney are part of a new breed of guerrilla filmmakers across the political spectrum capitalizing on lower film-production costs and innovative, Internet-based direct marketing and distribution techniques to raise awareness of their films and get products directly into the hands of consumers.

The average documentary is never seen by audiences outside of film festivals: Between advertising, theater rentals and print costs, the price of putting movies in front of audiences across the country is prohibitive, and documentaries in particular are widely viewed as box-office poison.

Click here for a video of filmmaker Phelim McAleer.

Even the exception to the rule, Michael Moore, is coming to be seen as a one-hit wonder. His most recent film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” tanked at the box office when it hit wide release, and his previous release, “Sicko,” failed to gross his reported salary of $25 million.

“If you don’t have $10 million, if you don’t have a studio behind you or a massive budget behind you, it just can’t be done,” Mr. McAleer said of a wide release. It doesn’t help that the sort of picture that he and his wife are selling — an expose of the negative consequences of drastic carbon reduction that questions the conventional wisdom regarding global warming — is political anathema to most of Hollywood.

“No big studio would come behind us, even though the film has very high production values,” Mr. McAleer said.

Effectively denied a theatrical release, the duo has chosen a more direct approach — the “cinematic tea parties.”

The filmmakers have offered the organizers of the screening with the highest attendance a trip to their native Ireland and the screening with the “most original” theme a $500 prize.

Visitors to their Web site can pick up single DVDs for $19.99 or “premiere party packs” for $10 more; the party packs will include a poster, invitations and a piece of red carpet.

Mr. McAleer and Miss McElhinney have some experience with this sort of thing — their previous feature, “Mine Your Own Business,” shipped more than 100,000 copies through direct sales. But they aren’t the only advocacy filmmakers going straight to the consumer.

Consider Citizens United, which famously attempted to distribute a film about Hillary Rodham Clinton during her primary race against Barack Obama. In an effort to gin up interest in the movie, they distributed DVDs for free in newspapers in various battleground states; critics derided the move as a transparent ploy to affect the race.

Their efforts to show commercials for the movie resulted in a Supreme Court case that will decide whether or not the McCain-Feingold Act can be invoked to define a documentary as a campaign advertisement and limit its airing. The result should be handed down any day now.

That isn’t the only way that Citizens United has tried to get its films out there.

“We have huge distribution through the mail and our phone programs, so we offer films, all of our products, to our membership,” said Citizens United head David Bossie. In addition to direct marketing, Citizens United has straight-to-DVD sales regimes in place with stores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, and rents films through Netflix and Blockbuster.

As a result of these unorthodox methods, Mr. Bossie says that his films average sales of 50,000 to 100,000 units in their first six months of sales.

“We have films that moved hundreds of thousands of units, like ‘Rediscovering God in America,’ which has sold almost 300,000 copies” in two years, Mr. Bossie said.

Documentarians on the left as well as the right also have partaken in direct sales as a method of getting their work seen; Robert Greenwald’s “Outfoxed” did similar business through house parties and DVD sales via Amazon, climbing to the top of the online retailer’s DVD section at one point.

Ideologically aligned filmmakers aren’t the only ones pursuing alternate distribution strategies. Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis’ company SnagFilms has taken a library of more than 850 films and made them available to the public for free.

“This month, our film widgets will be on 220 million pages and will stream 300 million films,” Mr. Leonsis said in a recent interview. “We’ve become, in 13 months, 14 months, another window for documentary and independent filmmakers.”

Mr. McAleer and Miss McElhinney have taken the more direct approach in spreading the word about “Not Evil.”

“We’re doing direct mailing; we’re sending out lots of e-mails; we’re doing lots of social networking,” Miss McElhinney says. “We’re reaching out to groups around the country that feel that this is an important story, and we’re asking them to help in a kind of grass-roots effort as well.”

The directors hope those grass-roots efforts will lead to the film being seen by an audience in the six figures at the premiere parties on Oct. 18.

One party is being hosted by Casey Jo Cooper, a student at the University of Central Florida. Her premiere will feature “paparazzi” taking pictures while bouncers ensure those in attendance are “VIPs.” The dress will be formal, and audiences will arrive on a red carpet.

Oregon State University will host another of the premiere parties. After seeing “Not Evil Just Wrong” at a conference last August, chemistry Professor Nick Drapela thought it was imperative for those on his campus to check the picture out.

“Seven years ago, I was teaching global warming theory to my students” he said, “and there are no facts that substantiate the theory. There are a lot of things that are said, and there are a lot of models, but there are no facts.”

After talking to the directors, Mr. Drapela offered to host a screening and began working with student Will Rogers to make that happen.

“We’re renting one of the auditoriums, and it holds at least 500-some people,” said Mr. Rogers, the executive director of the Liberty, a libertarian student-run newspaper at Oregon State. “I would hope for 150 people, but it depends on what sort of advertising we get.”

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