Filmmaker Robert Greenwald is part of the new media — in this case creating innovative, socially and politically revealing documentaries, and using a new model of distribution at the grassroots level. Our readers best know him for his groundbreaking film, “OutFoxed,” but he has produced a number of recent films that are important contributions to the pro-democracy, pro-American Constitution movement.
Greenwald, who began his career as a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker, has started a new production company aimed at producing socially relevant films on a relatively small budget, through collaborative outreach, and then distributing them through the Internet, in house showings, as well as in traditional theater screenings. And it’s working magnificently.
For his latest documentary, he turned to the behemoth of corporate greed, the pac-man of the retailing world, Wal-Mart. His objective is to raise social consciousness about corporate responsibility and the harsh, negative impact of unrestrained abusive employment practices on the working class of America – or what remains of it.
“Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” a BuzzFlash premium, is a must see film that focuses on the individuals affected by Wal-Mart’s rapacious profiteering at the expense of American small businesses and workers.
Almost any day you can find substantiation for Greenwald’s charges. Just look at this October 26, 2005, article from The New York Times, for example:
An internal memo sent to Wal-Mart’s board of directors proposes numerous ways to hold down spending on health care and other benefits while seeking to minimize damage to the retailer’s reputation. Among the recommendations are hiring more part-time workers and discouraging unhealthy people from working at Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart Memo Suggests Ways to Cut Employee Benefit Costs (NY Times)
Greenwald lifts up the veil on Wal-Mart’s seedy underside.
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BuzzFlash: You’ve had a series of films over the last few years that have been very successful, including, of course, “Outfoxed.” They focus primarily on the Bush Administration, the threat to civil liberties, the war in Iraq, the Republican propaganda machine, as in “Fox News.” Why did you choose to go in a little bit of a different direction by focusing on a corporation such as Wal-Mart?
Robert Greenwald: Actually, the Wal-Mart film is a perfect extension of the work that all of us have been doing. And let me digress just for a moment to reiterate that it’s you, at BuzzFlash, it’s the readers at BuzzFlash, it’s the readers at Alternet, it’s the people around the country, who are the distribution system. It’s better than Warner Brothers and better than Universal. It is all of the people out there who buy the DVDs and who then show the DVDs, that, to me, are the crucial distribution component.
But the Wal-Mart story is the story of economic injustice, and it’s the story of corporate greed and corporate unfairness. It’s a critical issue for progressives to raise going forward. Number one, we should raise it offensively, not defensively, by taking the initiative. And number two, it’s an issue that cuts across so many lines. In other words, we can’t just sit and complain — why are the people voting against their self-interest? Why aren’t people recognizing that the progressive positions are good for them? Here’s a movie which is a tool to help connect the dots to show people what is going on with these large multi-national corporations, and how it is really driving them to the bottom. And in the movie, by the way, there are more Republicans than Democrats. I believe this issue of corporate greed, of who sets the rules that we’re going to live by, is an issue that breaks people out of any kind of narrow little check-box – Democrat or Republican.
BuzzFlash: Wal-Mart is kind of like the Pac Man of retailers. It comes into communities and it just eats away at the smaller businesses, which have to shutter themselves. It particularly goes into communities where many jobs have been lost to overseas firms that sell products from these overseas firms through Wal-Mart. It’s like many of the people who shop there are self-cannibalizing, in a way. They’re buying products that they used to make, and they have to go to Wal-Mart to get cheaper products that are now made overseas by people who took their jobs.
Robert Greenwald: Yes. And with a corporation this size, it impacts all aspects of our lives. And it goes even further – the loss of your job, the loss of your health care, the loss of community, the loss of living in a home that had some value to it, because Wal-Mart’s moved next door and driven prices down. And there’s something else interesting. If you walk in front of one bus, and the bus knocks you down, you know you’ve been knocked down by that bus, right? But with Wal-Mart, because they’re so large, because of their size and a kind of indirectness, it’s not as clear. So what I’m excited about with the film and the campaign around the film – and again, the campaign being critical – is that we can show people there’s a bus that knocked them down. And this particular bus is Wal-Mart, and, to keep the metaphor going, the lines that it’s running on are corporate lines – large corporations.
BuzzFlash: You’ve chosen to tell the story in a certain way. You had a very creative model with “Outfoxed,” where you had the volunteer newshounds monitoring television, watching Fox and actually looking for clips that would be appropriate for the film, in order to show that Fox was a Republican propaganda machine, hypocritical, and that it was on-message with the White House message points of the day, generally from Karl Rove. You had a very creative model there of volunteers assisting in the production of the film, and who are continuing to exist as a website, “Newshounds.” In this film, how did you work to create it? It focuses on people to tell the story – people who have worked at Wal-Mart. You have an insider who was an executive who talks about his experience there. But you tell the story through people. How did you go about producing this?
Robert Greenwald: There’s a two- or three-part answer to that. First I made what was, in retrospect, one of the key creative/political decisions. In doing these kinds of films, the creative and the political come together and you’re sort of looking at both. I felt that the only way to deal with Wal-Mart’s extraordinary size and scope was to go intimate and small. I kept saying to staff: Arthur Miller, you know, in “Death of a Salesman” – “Attention must be paid.” So even though we used fact, we were not coming back at them with our facts, or our statistics – even though there are devastating statistics – or our experts – even though there are great experts – but we really tried to find the human being that can show us what it means to be working in a sweatshop in China run by Wal-Mart. Or what it means when your entire life has been committed to your family store, and then Wal-Mart comes in and gets a subsidy, and drives you out of business. Throughout the year of working on it, I kept going deeper and deeper, and more and more personal, so that people of all political persuasions and of all beliefs, can get this film, and it’ll change the way they think about this corporation. So that was the first step.
Now the finding of it was a combination of an incredible group at Brave New Films – real heroines and heroes who truly worked seven days, 18 hours a day, for extended periods of time to do research, to find the stories, to interview the sources, to edit the material. And we supplemented this group with a group of field producers around the country who are still working – and people can still sign up to join in – who provided us with photographs, with video, with research, with actions, with letters to the editor, with screenings, both in their homes and all kind – we’re getting people doing all kinds of unconventional screenings now. A couple of people have adventurously found ways to screen the trailer for the movie in Wal-Marts themselves, which I think is great. And those field producers – their work is continuing and continuing.
BuzzFlash: How did you find these people? You’ve really emphasized, as you said, the small story, meaning the story of people who are impacted by Wal-Mart – the workers, the people whose businesses have had to close, the executives who have soured on the greed and the real cruelty of the organization towards workers. How did you find these people to speak on camera?
Robert Greenwald: It was very, very hard. We encountered in the Wal-Mart employees a tremendous culture of fear, which I had not anticipated. But it was an extended process of research, talking to people who knew people, who had heard of somebody. It was literally having co-producers go and live in certain communities for a period of time, and spending time there, and cultivating local contacts. It was working the phones. It was using leads that came about in articles from journalists. It was working with some of the terrific heroes in D.C. who do these really important studies – these papers from think tanks. For example, I learned about subsidies, the corporate subsidies, in the states where it was more prevalent. So we guided our research. We were able to work with someone who’s done this amazing work around sweatshops around the world, and others, who pointed us in directions that led to our ultimately getting the story in China. It was lawyers who were cooperative in making some of the whistle-blowers available to us. So it was a very wide, complicated and consuming endeavor to find all these stories. And, you know, the original version of the movie — which maybe someday we’ll do as a BuzzFlash special – it’s probably fifteen hours.
BuzzFlash: Let’s talk about the corporate logo, the smiley face that Wal-Mart uses. Like George Bush, we can draw the analogy here. They have an image of kindness, benevolence, compassion. They have commercials of smiling employees, of the senior citizen greeter in a Wal-Mart vest, of giving back to the community, of a very happy, gleeful workforce that’s just excited to see customers. Your movie – your documentary – paints a far different picture of the corporate workforce from Wal-Mart.
Robert Greenwald: Yes. You know, it’s interesting, on their commercials – by their own numbers, they’re spending almost $4 million a day.
BuzzFlash: On advertising.
Robert Greenwald: Yes. And it’s not advertising about buying a bicycle or toilet paper. It’s advertising about the fact that, next to Mother Teresa, Wal-Mart is a close second.
BuzzFlash: It’s image-building, image enhancement.
Robert Greenwald: Totally – totally image-enhancing. And one of the things that I’ve suggested to them – and for some reason, they haven’t taken me up on it yet – which is they take that money, and they put it into an employee healthcare plan. Because, by the way, it’s almost the same as what they’re expending on employee healthcare for a million-six people – they’re spending it on propaganda. Take that money. Try an experiment for one year. Stop putting it into slick ads, and put it into really giving employees decent healthcare, and they’ll see a huge turnaround in their image. That’ll be a whole lot more productive than the money they’re wasting on consultants and thirty-second spots.
BuzzFlash: A couple of things we’ve read about Wal-Mart astonished us – one in a book that came out this summer, and there’s another book coming shortly, on Wal-Mart. But one of the two of the things was that in some states – I know in Arizona – I’ve read that Wal-Mart is the number-one corporation for having employees on Medicaid.
Robert Greenwald: Yes, there’s this whole section of the film where we go into this fact. Wal-Mart – by design, by pattern, by system – and we have managers on camera talking about this – they pay their employees so little – and this is a corporation that made $10 billion last year – they pay their employees so little, that the employees are encouraged and guided to get public assistance, Section 8 housing, food stamps, and various healthcare plans provided by the states. It’s scandalous that everyone’s tax dollars should be going so that Wal-Mart does not have to pay its employees decent wages or benefits.
BuzzFlash: In your film, there’s mention that they don’t allow, in many cases, employees to take a break to go to the washroom.
Robert Greenwald: Actually, I’m told that practice has now become more standardized. We have focused actually more on overtime. Two different managers talked about going in and literally breaking the law by changing employees’ timecards so that no overtime was ever on a timecard. There’s Wal-Mart policy not to pay overtime. One of the important things for your readers to understand is that Wal-Mart’s defense is “rotten apples” or “knuckleheads.” But what the film objectively and empirically proves is systemic abuse coming from Bentonville, coming from Wal-Mart policy. That’s important in the Wal-Mart case, because it goes to the core of corporate abuse and corporations setting the rules that we are living by, and corporations controlling our lives. Corporations, after all, as you know, were designed by law, set up by the state, to serve the people, to build bridges and tunnels and roads. And now they are this Goliath that’s eating up the very entities, and having more power than the very entities, that set them up.
BuzzFlash: Okay, it’s kind of ironic that under the Reagan era, and in a lot of Republican folklore, there’s this image of when America was in its grand age, and was a small town, and had a main street. But Wal-Mart’s wiping the main streets of America out right and left.
Robert Greenwald: Yes, absolutely. Again, we have a section of the movie where we show images, shots of main streets all over America – a lot of those shots, by the way, taken by our field producers – of closed-up towns, closed-up communities. And Bruce Springsteen gave us the rights to use “This Land is Your Land” under that, playing as one of the most evocative, powerful sections of the film.
BuzzFlash: One more statistic that I read was that, because the conditions for the workers are so onerous, and the pay is so poor, they have an enormously high turnover rate.
Robert Greenwald: Yes.
BuzzFlash: I think it’s something like 35% of employees.
Robert Greenwald: I think it used to be forty, and they got it down a little bit. But yes, that’s true.
BuzzFlash: That must consume a lot of cost, just in retraining people and –
Robert Greenwald: Well, you know, there’s a very strong argument to be made, by the way. The chairman of Brave New Films said that if you study the Wal-Mart stock, if you invested in it – I don’t know – five, six years ago, something like that – it’s essentially flat. You would have lost money. And other traded companies that treat the employees better, that are more responsible citizens, are actually doing better. So one of our arguments and one of the pressures that we’re applying to Wal-Mart is that this is one model – the worst of corporate abuse – pillage, murder, and do everything for every nickel. But there are other models. You can go to what some of the business guys call a double bottom line. And the other part of the bottom line is your responsibilities as a part of a country.
BuzzFlash: Let me ask you about what I think are your very innovative ways of dealing with the distribution of your film. Can you talk a little about how the film breaks away from the standard model of first being seen in a theater, and then a few months later, going to DVD and so forth? You’re kind of bringing together the MoveOn model of screenings, of theater distribution, selling it – the DVDs – over sites like BuzzFlash. You’re bringing all this and more together, which seems to be perhaps a model of the future of how many – certainly progressive films – will be distributed, but maybe even other films.
Robert Greenwald: I’m as excited about the way we’re distributing the film, and the evolution of that system, as I am about the content of the film. And starting with my partners and friends at MoveOn and the Center for American Progress with “Uncovered,” we really evolved this system where it was a multi-part system. The reason I did it with “Uncovered,” by the way, was very simple. Remember, I come from the traditional system. I’ve made 53, 54 movies, television, cable shows – all within the way it’s generally done. You know, you go to a gatekeeper, a middleman – whatever it is – a network, a studio, a cable company, a distributor, and you try to get them to take your product on, right?
But with “Uncovered,” when I started on it – and I started it myself just because I got so infuriated reading some articles in which the Administration was talking about programs for weapons of mass destruction. I said I want to go back and emotionally remind everybody about how terrified we were. So I started on it, and I went as far as I could go. I ran out of money, and I called MoveOn and the Center for help. And I remember Wes Boyd saying to me, “How soon can you have it out? Can it be six weeks?” And I said, “Wait a minute, Wes. This is a film. It’ll – you know, it’ll take longer than that.” But he made a great point, and I realized at that moment, I could not go through traditional gatekeepers, because – good, bad or indifferent – they cannot move that quickly. So I stayed up nights worrying, which is what I do for my primary job, and ultimately this idea coalesced, which was essentially to use a kind of an upstairs-downstairs strategy, where the Center for American Progress would do some high-profile screenings that would affect the decision-makers, the talkers, the media, and the MoveOn muscle, and the BuzzFlash muscle, and the Alternet muscle, and the Nation muscle, to help spread the word online. That was the first step with “Uncovered.”
Then with “Outfoxed,” I took it a next step by involving the media reform groups in the work. Now with the Wal-Mart movie, we’ve busted through all the models in the sense that I started with this amazing organizer, Lisa Smithline, who started working before one frame of film was shot. She started literally the day the first researchers started, calling groups, lining up support. She’s made phenomenal progress in the faith community. We’re going to have tons of screenings all over the country. We’re going to have a student screening run by students in every state in the union – at least one. We’ve made connections with the environmental movement, with the small family businesses around the country, legislators.
Because the film was conceived of, from day one, as a tool for social change, then the way to make it happen becomes clearer and clearer. Going the way I’ve done with other films – the more traditional film festival or a theatrical release – doesn’t make sense, because you want to impact the greatest number of people who don’t necessarily agree with you.
I love going to movie theaters. I love buying the popcorn, a Diet Coke – I mean, I love everything about it. I love to have my films in move theaters. But think about it for a minute. To get somebody to spend six, seven, eight, ten dollars to see a film on a subject either they don’t give a shit about, or they disagree with, it’s impossible. Studios spend twenty, thirty, forty million dollars getting people to see movies, and that’s very hard.
BuzzFlash: Documentaries are a particularly hard sell.
Robert Greenwald: Yes – documentaries with a social point, particularly hard. To get somebody to go spend ten bucks and see, you know, “Uncovered,” about the war, is very hard. Instead you can say to your neighbor, “Hey, I’m showing this Wal-Mart film. Could you come over? You know, we’ll have some drinks. We’ll have a potluck dinner.” Even if he or she disagrees with you, that becomes an interesting evening. Or it’s at your church, or you do it at your school, or a bowling alley. Someone’s doing it at a yoga studio. Someone’s doing it at a small bank, an independent bookstore. Wherever there’s a screen, there’s a possibility. And those possibilities radically increase the chances of reaching people who, as they say, are neutral or disagree. And that’s very exceptional.
BuzzFlash: You are ready, with your production staff to have 3,000-plus showings in nineteen countries and in all fifty states.
Robert Greenwald: Yes.
BuzzFlash: – which far beats what a theatrical opening would achieve.
Robert Greenwald: Well, yes, it’s spread much wider and much deeper. There are movies that go into thousands of theaters and reach a lot of people, but those are huge movies, and huge advertising campaigns. And even then, I contend, it’s a model to reach both the activists, who become the distributors, and then the distributors are reaching people who ordinarily would not be reached. If you’re sitting at a small restaurant and the owner puts it in – you would watch that movie, though you might not pay ten bucks to see it. Similarly, the relative that you fight with about politics all the time – they’re not going to pay the money to go to the theater. But when they’re over, and you put the DVD in, and then you have a discussion afterwards, it’s a whole other thing.
BuzzFlash: People, of course, can buy the DVD through BuzzFlash or other sites like Alternet or from your own site, which is http://www.walmartmovie.com/.
Robert Greenwald: Right. This is another great story about the alternative distribution. We created these satirical commercials – the parody ads. You know, Wal-Mart spends ten million dollars a day. We spent – we’re not sure. It was either $120 or $140 – depends on whether you counted the doughnuts and coffee, you know – to do our ads. We put them out, and they’ve had 175,000 hits.
BuzzFlash: You’re really returning the documentary, and particularly the advocacy documentary, to the grassroots level in true pro-democracy spirit.
Robert Greenwald: Yes. And people at the grassroots level are really the ones who account for its success. We’re creating the film, but its life depends on your readers and others who take it on, and the letters I get, and the field producers, and the suggestions coming in, where people find ways and different places that you would never dream of to screen it.
BuzzFlash: Let me explore this area of advocacy. It is more than a documentary – it’s an advocacy documentary. And as part of that, as you said, there’s an outreach to the religious community. You’re also stimulating a lot of other activity – for instance, JibJab just released an online animation parodying Wal-Mart. So there’s a kind of development of the advocacy activity on the Internet and elsewhere as a result of your film. So obviously you’re seeing this as not just an end in itself, but as a kind of a kickoff for a corporate responsibility campaign, in terms of Wal-Mart as the biggest symbol and the biggest target, but in general in terms of corporate responsibility to a community.
Robert Greenwald: Absolutely. As I say, corporate responsibility and economic justice go hand in hand, and I see this as a film that can generate that discussion. With people doing these screenings all over, for people of all political persuasions, we can have a hell of a discussion. There are going to be many people who don’t agree with me on almost any issue. But on this issue of corporate responsibility, of economic injustice, of monopoly, of destruction of American families, we have allies out there. And, damn it, it’s our job to go cultivate and build those allies, using this campaign around the corporations who set the rules, and their terrible destructive impact. I think it’s a great opportunity for us that has me passionate, because we can go out and begin to take that arena.
BuzzFlash: You mention on the site that Wal-Mart is already reacting and preparing a team to counteract the film. What’s going on with that?
Robert Greenwald: Well, they’ve done several things. They’ve called me names. They’ve insulted me. They’ve insulted the film – ironic, by the way, because they haven’t seen the film. I invited Lee Scott, the CEO of Wal-Mart, to be in the movie. He said no. But then I went back, and I said we would put a transcript up of his whole interview. They still said no. They announced a conference – they’ve never done this kind of a conference before in their lives – in which they would “have critics be able to present,” but critics who they decide are fair-minded critics. They won’t give me a definition of what that means. And that conference just happens to be the first week of November, when the film is coming out. They’ve just announced an environmental something-or-other, the first week of November, when the film is coming out. All purely by accident, of course.
BuzzFlash: Well, they probably have Karl Rove on a consulting contract.
Robert Greenwald: There you go.
BuzzFlash: Well, best of luck to you. This is a tremendous work of creative genius by you and your staff – and I think a tremendous new model that shows the combination of the new technology that the DVD provides, along with the Internet, and along with the kind of creative production skills that you’ve built up from years in the business – perhaps a new model for pro-democracy film and documentary to really turn things around on the grassroots level from the bottom up, instead of from the top down.
Robert Greenwald: Well, I think so. And the opportunities are only going to increase – with, podcasting, webcasting, the little telephones on which we can play videos. The opportunities to tell our story are great, and we don’t have to spend a billion dollars and try to buy CBS. They’re out there, and they’re growing.
But we need to build the stories to tell, and everyone needs to support BuzzFlash and all of the alternative sources out there, because you are our media.
BuzzFlash: Of course, that becomes particularly necessary, given that Wal-Mart has in the past excluded certain material – documentaries like “Fahrenheit 9/11” – from their shelves because they didn’t agree with them. I suspect they won’t be carrying “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.”
Robert Greenwald: You know, I made them an offer. I said, look, Sam Walton believed in one thing – he believed in making money. This is a DVD – they’re going to sell a lot of DVDs. So in Sam Walton’s honor, I think you should carry it. Plus I will personally come to a store and autograph copies. But they haven’t taken me up on it.
BuzzFlash: Robert, thank you.
Robert Greenwald: My pleasure.