NEW YORK — The Weinstein Co., Michael Moore and attorney David Boies held an event Monday, something akin to a movie press junket designed for the Beltway set.
In a conference room of Boies’ Midtown Manhattan law firm, they convened a news conference to outline their official response to what they called a Bush administration smear campaign against Moore’s latest documentary, “Sicko.”
Boies released a copy of a letter sent Monday to the Treasury Dept. that affirmed Moore’s status as a journalist and asked for “information regarding the person or persons who participated in the decision” to threaten actions against the filmmaker.
In early May, not long before the film’s premiere out of competition in Cannes, the “Sicko” camp disclosed that a Treasury Dept. letter had raised questions about possible violations of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Possible penalties could include seizure of the film, fines or jail time.
It’s been clear ever since “Sicko” got planted in the middle of the summer movie schedule, that its rollout was not going to be a conventional sales job.
Monday’s session featured non-entertainment newsies from wire services and international TV outlets eager to examine Moore’s healthcare investigation.
“This is not about Cuba and it is not about whether you like Castro or not,” Boies said. “This is about freedom of the press and an attempt to discriminate against Michael Moore’s journalism.”
At the root of the dispute is a 15-minute segment in the film showing Moore escorting 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba in order to illustrate the caliber of medical care available there compared with the U.S., where most of their requests for coverage had been denied.
Moore and his interview subjects should be considered part of a “journalistic enterprise” and therefore free to travel to Cuba, Boies said. The government suggested a different interpretation: that Moore created something of value while in Cuba (i.e., the film) and then took it home with him. That could be considered illegal in the manner of bringing home a box of Cuban cigars home.
Moore, who did most of the talking Monday, told the 30 or so media members present that he is “concerned about what the Bush administration might do over the next couple of weeks. I would have thought they would have waited until long after the film had been released to go after me.”
Harvey Weinstein said “the whole thing baffled me” and insisted he had told the administration members they could “turn off the spigot and we won’t get this kind of publicity but they won’t turn it off.”
“Sicko” went over big in Cannes, but will have its work cut out theatrically upon its bow June 29. Handled in the U.S. by Lionsgate but marketed solely by TWC, it will face weekend competition from “Ratatouille” and the latest “Die Hard” installment. The print run is not final but is expected to be in the realm of the 868 runs of Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Sensing the potential for adverse comparisons to that 2004 election-year phenom, TWC has been pointing out lately that “Sicko” was made for $9 million. Accordingly, the company said Monday after the briefing that its official expectation is for a gross in line with “Bowling for Columbine’s” $21.5 million.
On the publicity front, “Sicko” has already snagged magazine covers, a glittery Cannes bow sandwiched between the Coen brothers’ new film and a U2 concert, and the official endorsement of Oprah Winfrey, with the attendant televised attaboy. A likely wave of news and op-ed coverage during the next few weeks will give it more than a puncher’s chance to outshine “Columbine.” The $119 million domestic tally of “Fahrenheit” seems unlikely, however.
After some sedate opening remarks, Weinstein went on to float some “off the record” conspiracy theories to rival some of Moore’s, suggesting a GOP source told him that “kicking Michael’s ass would show the anti-Castro constituency that we’re tough.”
Discussions with former White House chief of staff Andrew Card, Weinstein added, suggested the episode was payback for the Democrats’ behavior during the 2000 Florida recount. A May 22 response from “Sicko” producer Meghan O’Hara handed out at the event Monday made similar connections.
When pressed about the timing and the suggestion that the whole federal case seemed to materialize at a miraculously well-timed interval, Moore scoffed, “Bob and Harvey actually did call Mr. Bush and ask him to start investigating me. I knew they were tight with the Clintons, but this showed the amount of influence these men have. All in this room should fear them.”
He then turned serious, insisting “We didn’t ask for this. We were going to open this movie very quietly. We’re not talking here about a movie or the opening or promotion of a movie. We’re talking about an individual being threatened and I take that very seriously.”
Boies noted that a Freedom of Information Act request was filed May 15 in order to elicit more information about what prompted the Treasury’s letter. “If necessary, we are ready to go to court,” he said.
Monday’s event had few light moments, but one came when a Fox News reporter, appearing sincere, asked Moore “what you thought of Cuba, its medical system, its people” before delivering the punchline, “And would you ever consider living there?”
Moore paused, pushed his glasses up his nose and gave one of his deadpan looks. “I’m looking forward to the day when Fox News moves to Cuba,” he said.