Documentary or political crusade?

'9/11' hype is less junket, more campaign

Michael Moore doesn’t talk about “Fahrenheit 9/11” as if he’s marketing just another movie. For him, it’s a political crusade. “I hope it helps get Bush out of the White House,” he has said.

It’s an excellent marketing pitch. When “Fahrenheit” opens across the nation today, it is set to be the biggest grossing and most widely screened documentary in history.

The lines between marketing films and electing candidates blurred long ago — both, after all, aim to get as many people as possible to show up at a particular place on a particular day. But by framing “Fahrenheit 9/11” as a referendum on the tenure of President George W. Bush, Moore has shattered any remaining distinctions. The film’s success will be due to the grassroots political support Moore has gathered, which is transforming the purchase of a movie ticket into an act of political faith.

The push for “Fahrenheit” has taken on all the trappings of a political campaign. Moore’s web site features point-by-point rebuttals of, as he sees it, inaccurate attacks on his film. Competing orgs have campaigned, in turn, to either convince theaters not to play the doc or sign up people who pledged to see the film on opening night. Moore has retained familiar names from the political realm, such as former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and consultants including Chris Lehane, who was Al Gore’s mouthpiece in 2000, and Howard Wolfson, campaign guru to Hillary Clinton in her successful Senate run.

It is understandable why some in D.C. have even begun to question whether TV ads for “Fahrenheit” are covered by federal regulations governing political advertising.

However just as politicians never like to discuss the machinations of their own campaigns, those involved in distributing “Fahrenheit” don’t like to talk about the marketing of the film in political terms, instead insisting they only want to take the film to the widest possible audience.

“We are in blue states and red states and purple states,” says Lions Gate prexy Tom Ortenberg.

Discussing the MPAA’s decision to give the film an R-rating, IFC Films head Jonathan Sehring says, “It really hurts what the film is trying to speak to, which is informing the American public about events in the world.”

Josh Baran is a PR consultant who specializes in controversial films. He helped Universal weather the storm of protest kicked up by “The Last Temptation of Christ” and more recently organized environmentalists to embrace “The Day After Tomorrow.”

He says the special role of film in American culture makes movies especially prone to controversy. “When it’s on the big screen, the images can become part of our mind,” he says. “For example when you have ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ this was going to be the way people visualize Jesus Christ now.”

Indeed, Mel Gibson proved himself a master of using controversy to promote a film. While a media debate raged about whether his film was anti-Semitic, Gibson also borrowed a page from Republican strategy by reaching out to conservative evangelicals to build a constituency for “The Passion.” A quarter-million promo DVDs were sent to churches and screened for thousands of pastors in order to convince congregations to buy up blocks of tickets. (Ironically, Gibson’s Icon Prods. initially agreed to finance “Fahrenheit” before being bailed out by Harvey Weinstein, who agreed to the exact same terms.)

Moore, meanwhile, has left most of the grassroots organizing for “Fahrenheit” to others. MoveOn PAC has latched onto the doc, urging its members to “Help Make ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ a Huge Hit” by going to see it on opening night. Over the opening weekend, they’ll hand out invitations to house parties on Monday where Moore will take questions via a conference call.

Every political controversy needs a good foil. Like a mantra, Moore has insisted that there have been efforts to keep his film from being shown. First to play that role was Michael Eisner, who decreed that Miramax could not release the film.

After distribution was secured, Move America Forward stepped up to fill the villain void. So far, all MAF has done is put up a web site calling for people to ask theaters to not play the film and issue a few press releases accusing Moore of cooperating with terrorists, failing to get all the theaters he wanted and the like.

But every word and pixel of publicity — pro or con — ultimately helps the film, at least according to conventional wisdom. As Eli Pariser, exec director of MoveOn PAC, says of the MAF boycott attempt, “In the long run, what they are doing is drumming up more interest in the movie.”

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