Robert Greenwald's Broadside At Retail Giant Gains Viral Traction

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COLUMBUS, Ohio ( -- Veteran Hollywood filmmaker Robert Greenwald is turning to a new distribution model -- church groups -- for his latest film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.

Robert Greenwald's anti-Wal-Mart DVD is being distributed outside of the cinema circuit.
On Nov. 13, hundreds of mostly progressive Protestant churches, not cinemas, will open their doors for screenings of the latest release by the creator of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. Mr. Greenwald’s $1.8 million Wal-Mart criticizes the retailer’s impact on small-town America and the low wages and minimal health insurance given to workers by telling the personal stories of 10 workers and small-business owners.

In addition to churches, the film will be screened at universities, community centers and people’s homes.

Viral effort
The nontraditional distribution model, which includes an online viral strategy, shows evidence of working already. A spot circulating on the Web, “The Gospel According to Sam Walton,” stars James Cromwell, from HBO’s Six Feet Under and former president of the Screen Actors Guild, along with Frances Fisher, who starred in Titanic. Set on a serene front-porch in the country, a couple asks why they haven’t seen their neighbors -- who recently got jobs at the new Wal-Mart -- at church in awhile. “Do you think they still pray?” the wife asks. “Only for their shifts to end,” the husband responds.

More than 100,000 people have downloaded the spot, and it was ranked No. 3 on last week. In response to the demand, the trailer, along with several others, will be shown in about 20 independent theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

The fervent backing from the church community for the film is no accident. “Before even one frame was shot, we were talking about a campaign to reach all kinds of faith groups that are affected by this issue,” Mr. Greenwald said.

The strategy is working, judging by the cover of the United Church of Christ’s October issue of its national magazine, United Church News, which asks: “Disgusted by poverty in America? ‘Wal-Martization’ is not the economic answer,” and features a scathing critique of the retailer along with a heavy promotional push for Mr. Greenwald’s film.

“It’s one of those ‘it’s time to act’ awakenings,” said the Rev. Ron Stief, director of the United Church of Christ’s public policy office in Washington. “We’ve all been concerned about what we’ve heard about Wal-Mart doing to our local communities.”

1.3 million members
The Protestant church has 1.3 million members and 6,000 congregations nationwide. Mr. Stief estimated more than 200 member churches will screen the movie on its release date, along with hundreds of other churches nationwide that have signed up on the Web site

Despite the United Church of Christ’s critique of Wal-Mart, there have been no calls for a boycott of the retailer.“Poverty and racial justice is one of our deepest concerns, we don’t want to step out and make poor people feel guilty for shopping at Wal-Mart,” Mr. Stief said.

In January, the United Church of Christ began an internal debate regarding what the church’s stance on Wal-Mart should be. The move follows a similar one by the Presbyterian Church. More than a year ago, the 11,000-strong church network with 2.4 million members began actively debating the retailer’s impact on its communities, even though the Walton family is Presbyterian.

“A lot of us around here don’t have kind thoughts about Wal-Mart,” said the Rev. Jerry L. Van Marter, a national coordinator of the Presbyterian News Service. “We love the Waltons and their money, but don’t love what they do with their company.”

No distribution
Mr. Greenwald said he talked to a several Hollywood studios about distributing the film, particularly via DVD, and a few “minor studios” about a limited theatrical release.

“I think no one would, because taking on Wal-Mart in this way could threaten their business since so many DVDs are sold through Wal-Mart today,” he said.

Wal-Mart has begun responding to the film by criticizing Mr. Greenwald’s motivations and credibility. “It seems his project is better categorized as propaganda than as documentary,” said Sarah Clark, a spokeswoman. She also pointed to reports that the filmmaker plans a future film project with the AFL-CIO and Mr. Greenwald’s willingness to profit from selling his films on, where seven of his films are sold.

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