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When movies start to matter beyond entertainment value, box office receipts and popcorn sales, is that a sign that the end of the world is nigh? We've been writing a lot lately about Michael Moore and the impact of his latest film, SICKO, Leonardo DiCaprio, who's been relentlessly promoting his environmental film, The 11th Hour. Last year, Al Gore generated a big splash (and cries of "Gore in 2008!") with his end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it slide show turned Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, which I first wrote about at Sundance in 2006, when Gore shocked me by showing up for the Q&A with a passion I'd never seen in the man before. Amy Berg's wrenching Deliver Us from Evil, which played last year at Toronto, brought the issue of the alleged cover-up of decades of sexual abuse committed by priest Oliver O'Grady by the Catholic Church to the forefront. Suddenly, it seems, documentary filmmaking isn't just about informing -- it's about affecting real social change. Which, as I wrote about in my last Film Clips column, makes it even more imperative that filmmakers both have their facts straight, and report them in a straightforward manner. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in America who has more facts in his head about health care than Moore. When Moore appeared both on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, and a day later on Larry King Live debating CNN's surgeon-turned-journalist Sanjay Gupta, he came prepared with an arsenal of facts at his disposal, firing off stats with an impressive shock-and-awe technique, and dismissing his opponent's comments with a wave of his hand.
Gupta may have kept his cool on camera, but to the masses of "everymen" dealing with health insurance issues -- the people Moore speaks to and advocates for through his film -- who are you going to believe? The affable, average-looking, plain-talking Moore, who speaks as though he's sitting down with you over beers at the local dive? Or the slick, polished, Gupta, who looks like he has a personal makeup person touching up his nose powder between takes? Moore speaks the language of the people, and the people are listening.
So are the insurance companies. Moore was sent a secret memo from within the walls of Capital BlueCross. The four-page memo, written by BlueCross VP of Corporate Communications Barclay Fitzpatrick (who, I bet has had some rising blood pressure of his own as a result of this memo leaking out), details how he checked out a screening of SICKO, and then goes on to analyze how the company's PR machine should deal with fallout from the film, should it be successful. Moore, on his website, publicly challenges BlueCross to a real debate on the health care issue (likelihood that will happen? About as likely as Moore ever getting that apology he wants from CNN).
In her July 12 column, Variety's Anne Thompson talks about how Moore, through his film's MySpace page, has encouraged viewers to videotape and upload their own tales of healthcare woes. One man, Thompson says, shared his tale of Cigna denying $66,000 in medical claims; after he uploaded his story to Moore's site, the insurer suddenly told him he owed only a $500 co-pay. Would that have happened without Moore's film, without the internet, without all the attention suddenly focused on health care because of Moore's relentless promoting and his dedication to putting information about health care in front of the people? Cigna would probably say it had nothing to do with Moore; Moore would just as likely beg to differ.
Does Moore have the nation's for-profit insurers quaking in his cross-hairs? Some argue that the information Moore puts out there is, conveniently, the information that backs up the position he presents in his film, but even Gupta didn't argue with the legitimacy of Moore's sources, although he took umbrage with what he called Moore's "cherry-picking" of stats from a variety of sources in a way that might seem to be deliberately bolstering his argument. Moore and Gupta particularly went head-to-head over a $1,000 or so per person difference in what the US spends on healthcare; some commenters on Cinematical (and other places) have questioned why the two spent so much time arguing over a seemingly trivial amount, but that $1,000 a head adds up pretty quickly when you multiple it times millions of people.
Another hot social topic, the environment, has also been the focus of documentary filmmaking of late. DiCaprio has been an environmental activist for a long while now; he was an early adopter of hybrid cars, he's pals with Al Gore, and now he's produced and narrated The 11th Hour (he also has writing credit for the film), which he's been promoting relentlessly through the film's official MySpace page and his own environmental website, where you can also watch a couple of informational shorts on the environment by DiCaprio, Global Warning and Water Planet. The 11th Hour, like An Inconvenient Truth, boasts a bevy of experts backing up DiCaprio's take on the state of the environment, but you can bet the right side of the political aisle will parade their own experts on all the news shows when the film opens August 17, and you can also bet those experts will have their own facts and stats backing up their arguments. It's great that people are talking, but how are the people to know whose stats are right?
Arguably, it was Moore who really got this whole docs-as-agents-of-social-change ball rolling back in 1989 when the then-inexperienced filmmaker decided to go after GM CEO Roger Smith for -- in Moore's view -- destroying his hometown of Flint, Michigan. The resulting film (and now a film school mainstay), Roger & Me, has come under fire recently from doc filmmaker John Pierson, who sold the film way back when, coming out in support of Manufacturing Dissent, a doc about Moore which alleges that Moore omitted certain facts -- including that he did, in fact, get to interview Smith, and never revealed that in the film.
Are such allegations impacting the box office success of SICKO? Not really. The film, which had a limited release June 22 and went wide July 3, has made just under $16 million off a $9 million prod budget, with an opening weekend take (on its wide release) of just over $3.6 million on 702 screens and a solid $2.6 million this weekend. This may be a decent take by doc standards -- even by Michael Moore standards -- but Moore's last film, Fahrenheit 9/11, had an opening weekend of over $23 million on 868 screens. But let's keep documentary box office takes in perspective: marching penguins aside, Amy Berg's Oscar-nommed doc Deliver Us from Evil (which should have been seen by a lot more people) only grossed $201,275; Alex Gibney's film Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room (also Oscar-nommed) grossed just over $4 million, and even the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, riding the shoulders of Al Gore promoting it on every news talk show on television for weeks on end, only grossed $24 million. Taken in context, then, SICKO's $15, 876,000 over four weeks isn't too shabby.
The real test will be what kind of overall impact on society films like SICKO, The 11th Hour and An Inconvenient Truth end up having. Certainly, the latter two have raised awareness and stirred debate on the issue of the environment, but if Gore and his experts are right and we only have another decade or so to make the myriad societal changes we need to make to save our planet, will that be enough? As for Moore and SICKO, Moore's website has his personal "prescription for change" for our nations health care system: 1) Every resident of the United States must have free, universal health care for life; 2) All health insurance companies must be abolished; and 3) Pharamceutical companies must be strictly regulated like a public utility.
You can bet your next co-pay that the Republicans in Congress aren't going to get on the bandwagon for what Moore wants (or what Leo wants for the environment), and even Moore, when pressed by Wolf Blitzer on his CNN appearance, couldn't name a candidate who's plan for health care he really supports (the closest he could get was Dennis Kucinich). So what's next? Moore for President? And a doc about his run for office? Now that would be political activism ... but would it sell at the box office?