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Assailing the company image

Documentary films critical of corporate power are prompting targets to counterattack and, some say, change practices.

November 27, 2006|Jacob Adelman | The Associated Press

Starbucks Corp. was one of the companies that turned down interview requests from Marc and Nick Francis when the brothers were shooting their documentary about rampant poverty among Ethiopian coffee growers.

But after "Black Gold" attracted attention at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the coffee giant invited the British filmmakers to its Seattle headquarters as it prepared for bad publicity.

"Black Gold," now being screened at festivals and art houses, is the latest in a growing genre of documentary films shaking up the business world. They are taking criticisms of corporate power that once came mostly in print to movie theaters and DVD shops, where they're finding an increasingly receptive audience.

The trend, which started with "Roger and Me" in 1989 and more recently featured "Super Size Me" and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," is forcing some corporate targets to counterattack -- and, some say, even change business practices -- to dodge claims of unfair wages, unhealthful products or environmental degradation.

"When you're talking about a documentary, it's something that's being presented as if it's fact, so that's a huge problem for companies," said Paul A. Argenti, a professor at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University.

Michael Moore's "Roger and Me" left a lasting blemish on General Motors Corp. The film denounced the automaker for having closed its plant in Flint, Mich., leaving rampant unemployment in its wake.

Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary "Super Size Me" assailed McDonald's for pushing high-calorie meals, and last year's Enron film by Alex Gibney showed how avarice and corruption brought down the world's largest energy company.

The films are finding an eager audience, said Erik Schut, editorial director of TLA Entertainment Group Inc., which runs video rental shops on the East Coast and operates a DVD mail-order service.

"These are not Hollywood-style films," he said. "So the fact that people are responding to them, that says a lot."

Jon Else, who teaches documentary filmmaking at UC Berkeley, believes the growing interest in documentaries critical of corporations is a reaction to the extremes of wealth created by an untamed free market.

Nick Francis says "Black Gold" stemmed from the brothers' outrage about the poverty that persists among Ethiopian growers even as multinational coffee sellers make huge profits.

The brothers put the final cost of the movie at $760,000, and they said its financing was typical for films of the genre, relying on grants, small donations and pro bono production help.

This year's "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers" from director Robert Greenwald was bankrolled by thousands of individual donors who responded to a fundraising e-mail from the filmmakers.

Despite the relatively small budgets, many of the films have drawn big attention.

Starbucks sent an e-mail to employees in Britain before "Black Gold" played at the London Film Festival characterizing the movie as "inaccurate and incomplete." At Sundance, the company distributed a statement saying it believed that "coffee farmers should make a living wage and be paid fair prices."

Nick Francis credits "Black Gold" with helping to prompt an upcoming meeting between the chief executive of Starbucks and the Ethiopian prime minister.

Starbucks spokeswoman Audrey Lincoff said the film and the meeting were unrelated.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reacted similarly to Greenwald's "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" when it was released last year. The company kept a log of what it called the film's "numerous inaccuracies" and shared it with reporters and on its website, spokeswoman Marisa Bluestone said.

Wal-Mart also made its workers available for a rebuttal documentary, "Why Wal-Mart Works: And Why That Drives Some People C-r-a-z-y," which portrays the corporation sympathetically.

Spurlock suspects that his 2004 documentary "Super Size Me," which showed the unhealthful effect of a strictly fast-food diet, helped influence McDonald's Corp. to add more-healthful items to its menu.

"McDonald's is launching its new 'Go Active! Adult Happy Meals' nationwide," he wrote on his weblog when his movie began generating buzz. "Coincidence? Yeah, right."

McDonald's has consistently denied any connection between the film and changes to its menu.

"Super Size Me" is one of the relatively few business-related documentaries to find broad distribution. Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films picked it up after it won Spurlock a Sundance documentary directing award in 2004.

It went on to earn $11.5 million at the U.S. box office, becoming the biggest moneymaker in the genre. "Roger and Me" earned $6.7 million at the U.S. box office. "Sicko," Moore's film on the pharmaceutical industry, is due out next summer.

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