Posted on May 18, 2007

For Michael Moore, Controversy Is Marketing


The Wall Street Journal
May 18, 2007; Page B1

Filmmaker Michael Moore says on his Web site that his new documentary, “SiCKO,” “will expose the health-care industry’s greed and control over America’s political processes.”

Controversy has become a key ingredient of marketing Mr. Moore’s work, and the backers of “SiCKO” hope that the new movie will stir up emotions and help generate the kind of buzz that made his last movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” both a topic of national debate and an unprecedented blockbuster in the documentary genre. “Fahrenheit 9/11” had a budget of $6 million and grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. alone.

Mr. Moore’s formula is simple: Pick a divisive topic and goad opponents into a public debate before the movie opens. The question is whether his new film’s subject material — health care and insurance — will deliver the kind of heat that he generated for “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a movie about the Bush administration’s actions before and after the Sept. 11th attacks. “SiCKO” makes its debut at the Cannes Film Festival this weekend and opens in U.S. theaters June 29.

Movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who has worked on Mr. Moore’s previous movies and whose company is financing, marketing and co-distributing this one, predicts his new release “will ignite the country once and for all to deal with health care.” Unlike “Fahrenheit 9/11,” he says the movie will appeal to both ends of the political spectrum, though it may be difficult for Mr. Moore to win backing from conservatives he has previously lambasted.

Mr. Moore’s critics — like Canadian documentarians Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine, who recently released a movie that slammed his style — say that he understands the appeal of a good brawl. “Michael knows the entertainment quotient trumps all,” says Ms. Melnyk.

“Fahrenheit 9/11” had a lucky break early on when Walt Disney Co. refused to distribute it, a point Mr. Moore and company used to generate enormous amounts of free publicity for the film.

To help build buzz for “SiCKO,” Mr. Weinstein brought back the “Fahrenheit 9/11” team, including political consultant Chris Lehane. Mr. Lehane is perhaps best known as an ex-adviser to Bill Clinton; he helped the former president navigate such crises as Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky.

As was the case with “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the team is overlaying its traditional marketing campaign with an aggressive online outreach, including postings and chat on progressive sites like Daily Kos and screenings for bloggers. But this time it’s a broader push, including conservative sites. Says Mr. Lehane: “The film has the potential to appeal to a broader audience because it is not red state versus blue state, but the little guy versus powerful corporations and a broken political system.”

In a classic move to heighten the suspense of the project, Mr. Moore has largely kept a lid on the contents of the movie. Still, the drug companies have already started taking the bait. When Mr. Moore was just beginning the documentary, some of them sent out warnings to employees not to speak to the baseball-capped documentarian.

Rumors started circling in the industry after the filmmakers showed the movie to key groups such as the nurses’ union and leading health-care experts. The producers of “The Passion of the Christ” employed a similar tactic by screening their movie in advance of the opening for religious groups and stoking interest among Christians. The “SiCKO” team also plans to cross-market premieres of the film with organizations with an interest in the subject. They declined to name the groups.

The trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), has already prepared a press release that it is sending out when asked for comment on the movie, even though no one at PhRMA has seen it yet. In the press release, the group says Mr. Moore has a track record for sensationalism and will not make a documentary that is “balanced, thoughtful and well-researched.”

The sensitivity is perhaps understandable, given that the drug companies are still licking their wounds from the 2005 drama “The Constant Gardener,” a fictional film which portrayed pharmaceutical firms in an unflattering light. The trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) hired William Morris several years ago to help improve their image in Hollywood.

Picking a fight with the opposition is a key component of Mr. Moore’s typical marketing plan. Depending on the response of the industry, the “SiCKO” marketers have created various tactics to fire back. That may include gimmicks such as placing logos of HMOs on tombstones in newspaper ads, according to people familiar with the situation.

Mr. Weinstein acknowledges that a shrill response from the film’s targets would play right into their hands. “If they want the movie to succeed, they should fire away,” he says.

Adds Mr. Lehane: “If someone throws a $1,000 bill at our feet, of course we’ll bend down and pick it up.” He noted though that health-industry companies are likely to rely on groups they fund and political allies to respond.

Ken Johnson, senior vice president for PhRMA responded: “No one should be surprised that Michael Moore is making baseless accusations designed to drum up publicity for his movie.” He added that Mr. Moore’s movie was not on their “top ten list of concerns.”

AHIP spokesman Mohit Ghose says they will respond to the movie once they’ve seen it, but they are already focused on improving quality access to health care and affordability.

Mr. Moore has mined other sensitivities. Details of a trip to Cuba to film part of the movie have been much discussed in the press in recent weeks. Mr. Moore took a group of 9/11 first-responders suffering from respiratory problems to Cuba, where they received treatment.

That provoked accusations that he used the workers as pawns. The U.S. government also piled in, saying it had launched an investigation into whether Mr. Moore violated a travel ban by filming in Cuba.

Shortly after receiving a letter from the U.S. Treasury Department, Mr. Moore posted a response on his Web site. People involved in the movie say the Cuba scenario has been misreported. Mr. Moore’s team declined requests to clarify the details. Mr. Lehane would only say: “People will be very surprised and provoked about the motivations for the trip to Cuba and what transpired on the ground.”

Mr. Moore uses his Web site to publicize daily reaction to his movie, including the latest stories on the “controversy.” Recent headlines include a news agency story about how Mr. Moore is hiding the copy of his movie from U.S. authorities ahead of the Cannes screening. This week, it also featured a section on former Sen. Fred Thompson, a possible presidential candidate, who jumped into the debate by criticizing Mr. Moore for going to Cuba.

Mr. Moore responded by scolding the Republican from Tennessee, citing a report about his fondness for Cuban cigars and inviting him to debate the subject of health care. In a video response, Mr. Thompson, cigar in hand, declined to meet Mr. Moore and said he should think about a mental hospital, which he claimed was where Cuba locked up one documentary maker.