- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Unable to get Hollywood studio backing for their new documentary, “Not Evil Just Wrong” - an answer to Al Gore’s climate-change lecture “An Inconvenient Truth” - husband-and-wife filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney have taken matters into their own hands.

Hoping to tap the surge of populist anger and activism on the right, they are bypassing traditional distribution avenues and bringing their film directly to motivated audiences through “cinematic tea parties,” their term for the patchwork of grass-roots screenings in living rooms, campus auditoriums and rented theaters across the country that they have scheduled for Oct. 18.

Mr. McAleer and Ms. McElhinney are part of a new breed of guerrilla documentarians across the political spectrum. Taking advantage of cheaper, more accessible video-production technology and innovative, Internet-based direct marketing and distribution techniques, they are assembling new audiences for their films from the ground up - without the studio middlemen.

The average documentary is never seen by audiences outside of film festivals: Because of 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.

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 climate change - 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 filmmakers have chosen a more direct approach: cinematic tea parties.

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

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 Ms. McElhinney have experience with this sort of event: More than 100,000 copies of their previous feature, “Mine Your Own Business,” were shipped through direct sales.

Another advocacy filmmaker going straight to the consumer is Citizens United, which attempted to distribute a film about Hillary Rodham Clinton during her presidential primary race against Barack Obama. In an effort to gin up interest in the movie, the filmmaker distributed free DVDs through newspapers in battleground states; critics derided the move as a transparent ploy to affect the outcome of the race.

Efforts to show commercials for the movie resulted in a Supreme Court case that will decide whether the McCain-Feingold law can be invoked to define a documentary as a campaign advertisement and limit its airing.

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

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

As a result of these unorthodox methods, Mr. Bossie said, Citizens United films average sales of 50,000 to 100,000 units in the first six months.

“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.

Documentarian Robert Greenwald used house parties for direct sales for “Outfoxed,” and the film climbed to the top of online retailer Amazon’s DVD section at one point.

Filmmakers who are not ideologically aligned also are pursuing alternate distribution strategies. Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis’ SnagFilms has taken a library of more than 850 films and made them available to the public free of charge.

“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 Ms. 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,” said Ms. McElhinney. “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 a total audience reaching 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 in August, chemistry professor Nick Drapela thought it was imperative for those on his campus to check out the picture.

“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 with 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, 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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