Documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald's latest work is being touted as the movie that Wal-Mart doesn't want you to see. As it turns out, it's also the movie that Landmark Theatres doesn't want to show you.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price was scheduled to premiere on the big screen at Landmark locations in San Francisco and Berkeley this week. But earlier this month Landmark abruptly canceled plans to show the film in thirteen markets, including its "exclusive" Bay Area engagement at the Act 1&2 in Berkeley and the Lumiere in Frisco. The decision to cancel came so late that the Act didn't have time to change its new three-month preview calendar, which still features the Wal-Mart movie prominently.
So why did Landmark and Greenwald part ways? On paper, it seems like a perfect match between a rebel filmmaker and an artsy-fartsy theater chain. (Yes, it's a chain -- but the kind of theater chain where even pre-feature commercials have subtitles.) But it seems Landmark execs didn't appreciate the competition posed by the film's unique grassroots marketing campaign.
All over the country for the past two weeks, lefties, labor activists, and K-Mart loyalists have been hosting their own screenings of the Wal-Mart documentary at college campuses, union halls, and churches. Greenwald has been signing up people on his Web site, WalmartMovie.com, to buy a $12.95 DVD and to host a screening. Greenwald used such living-room showings to create buzz for his previous polemic, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism. His site boasts that there were six thousand private screenings worldwide during the populist-premiere week, which is modestly described as the "largest grassroots mobilization in movie history."
For some reason, the folks at Landmark weren't as thrilled about movie history being made before they had the chance to sell a single ticket. Steve Indig, a senior regional publicist for the company, explained the rift between his bosses and Greenwald's company this way: "If you show a movie over and over before it comes out in the theaters, no one is going to see it." Not in a theater for nine bucks, anyway. To make matters worse from Landmark's perspective, a liberal event planner called The Party Progressive showed the Wal-Mart movie at non-Landmark SF movie house the Roxie prior to its official big-screen premiere in the Bay Area.
But don't worry, Bay Area docuphiles. You can still catch the Wal-Mart movie on the big screen at the Balboa Theater in San Fran. Movie-man Gary Meyer, who owns the Balboa, got wind of the falling out and offered to show the film at his theater. He says Landmark's anger about the movie's distribution is ironic because its parent company, 2929 Entertainment, is planning something very similar: The company is going to show Steven Soderbergh's film Bubble in its theaters and release it on DVD simultaneously. Another irony Meyer notes: He just went out and bought seven movie-poster frames at, you guessed it, Wal-Mart. "I'm a hypocrite," he chuckles.
Hodgeball at Peralta
Normally, a public censure from your colleagues is a bad thing. Why, then, are some critics of Peralta Community College District trustee Marcie Hodge privately worried that her recent rebuke might actually make her look good?
Last week Hodge's colleagues censured her for "uncivil verbal outbursts" for criticizing staff, particularly Jacob Ng, the high-flying head of the international education program that recruits foreign students to the four-college district. Hodge recently sent a flier to "constituents" -- including some not even in her district -- blasting Ng and the program as wasteful (he regularly travels overseas) and unaccountable. Her colleagues accuse her of grandstanding to raise her profile as she prepares to run against Oakland Councildiva Desley Brooks. Which is no doubt true. The thing is, Hodge has a point.
Ng's department has been unaccountable, unable to produce any data showing the number of foreign students it has actually recruited. And while Hodge's chest-pounding regarding Ng's travel habits may be nitpicking -- his department's annual travel budget is just $20,000, says trustee Bill Withrow -- it's a sexy-sounding issue that resonates with voters. After all, the junketing habits of Peralta execs were the district's biggest scandal of the decade.
The day after the censure, a Hodge critic in the teachers' union groused, "Everyone's going to think it's a cover-up. So, yeah, this is good for her." And that's exactly how Hodge is playing it -- as a cover-up. She promptly issued a press release describing her censure as "an attempt to silence her call for reform."
Another Hodge-hater pointed to the opening sentence of the Trib's story the next day as proof the censure had backfired: "The first rule of the Peralta Community College District is don't talk bad about the Peralta Community College District."
The Trib article, however, neglected to mention the most damaging part of the censure resolution, which could be exploited by a future political opponent: "[Hodge] is often substantially late for board meetings and workshops, has never attended the board committee meetings to which she has been assigned ... and is frequently absent from the workshops and general sessions at state and national conferences that she attends at taxpayer expense."
In an interview, Hodge denied the charges of absenteeism and chronic tardiness, saying, "That is all false. ... It's just a personal vendetta and no one wants me to speak out on the international office of education, so this is what they come up with."
In fact, the original version of the resolution -- which was toned down for the final draft -- was even harsher. It said Hodge's public comments "rarely bear any relationship to the issues" and that she reads magazines during meetings (such as People, according to one trustee).
As for the absences, Peralta spokesman Jeff Heyman says Hodge was booted off the board's Standards and Management Committee because she had failed to attend any of the eight or nine meetings it held while she was an appointed member. She is now on the Student Services Committee, which, according to Heyman, hasn't held a meeting since she joined.
Fun with Press Releases, Part 17
The Ambiguous Press Release Award for the week goes to the Oakland Police Department, which last week sent out an announcement with the headline: "OPD to Host Human Trafficking Training Seminar." A smart-ass could read that to mean the Oakland cops will be teaching residents how to get started in the human-trafficking business. This smart-ass columnist thoughtfully informed police press handler Danielle Bowman of the alternate interpretation. "You couldn't resist, could you?" she retorted.
Sorry, Officer B. Slow news week, with the holiday and all.
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