You may have noticed how much Wal-Mart has been appearing in your news feeds recently. The world's largest retailer - it owns the UK's second biggest supermarket chain Asda - has announced a number of initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases and environmental pollution, to introduce new health insurance for its employees, and a surprising decision to lobby for a higher minimum wage in the States. What's up with Wal-Mart? The mega-corp, who has a reputation for ruthless costcutting and leaving a trail of broken businesses in its wake, is readying itself for a bashing from Outfoxed filmmaker Robert Greenwald.
Greenwald's Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price comes out 13th November, at over 3,000 screenings and house parties across the US: it will screen in churches, small business venues, community centres, education halls, and even cinemas. There are screenings throughout the world, although only one screening is listed in the whole of the U.K. In North America, the filmmakers boast that this is "the largest grassroots viral marketing campaign ever" is probably true.
To garner some advance publicity before "Premiere Week", the film is screening in select cinemas in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, 4th November. Then, each day between 13th and 19th November will be devoted to a different Wal-Mart theme from health insurance day to a shareholders' and corporate responsibility day.
The film itself looks at the corporation's practices through interviews with whistle-blowers, Wal-Mart employees, community leaders, suppliers and small business people. In normal instances, Wal-Mart might have left such a film to languish in obscurity, but they can't ignore this: around 4 million people saw Outfoxed even though the doc had no Hollywood distributor, major studio or big theatrical release.
Greenwald's web site has become a model for self-distribution practices in the internet era. The web site is the distribution equivalent of a swiss army knife: it works as a platform for running the PR campaign, a gathering point for debate on Wal-Mart, a place where people can gather materials to put on their own neighbourhood screenings ($10 a screening), a notice board for new screenings, and a store where users can buy DVDs and merchandise. Anyone can order DVDs in bulk at wholesale prices and any website can earn $5 a sale by posting a Wal-Mart affiliate link, just as iofilm has (see the link at the end of this article).
Wal-Mart has responded on multiple fronts - a charm offensive, rubbishing the trailers, and personally attacking the filmmaker's integrity. Wal-Mart even issued a press release collating all Greenwald's worst reviews. Greenwald seems to be lapping up the attention. He blogs, a few days ago, "Things are definitely heating up on the Wal-Mart front. They are attacking us bigger, meaner, louder... However, this is no surprise. The surprise is how much effort they are putting into the appearance of doing better, nicer, as well as hopefully some steps forward of substance."
If there is a frontline in this PR battle it's the trailers.
After Greenwald posted the movie trailers on his website, Wal-Mart responded by posting a slick video retort on WalmartFacts.com rubbishing Greenwald's trailer. In Three Strikes, Wal-Mart says Greenwald's trailer got three of his facts wrong. Greenwald's Brave New Films responded by posting a dubbed version of the Wal-Mart short with a sardonic voice-over, suggesting that Wal-Mart not "waste their money trying to imply that a trailer is the movie."
In another video clip on Greenwald's site entitled Confessions of a Wal-Mart Hit Man, an ex-Wal-Mart manager, who worked for the company for 17 years, talks about the cut-throat working conditions when he worked for Wal-Mart as the equivalent of a "mob boss". On leaving the company he says, "It's almost like you have to be debriefed to know how to be a normal person."
Critics have said that Greenwald is trying to be the next Michael Moore. But if anything there are more parallels with Morgan Spurlock and Super Size Me, where McDonald's tried to pre-empt the film's criticisms by moving to phase out supersized portions and introducing more healthy meals. Strike those: this is different. Greenwald, whatever you think of his politics, is taking film distribution to a new level.