tampabay.com

Film faceoff

With competing Wal-Mart documentaries debuting this month, the propaganda war begins.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published November 1, 2005


You've seen the news stories about the fierce hearts-and-mind PR campaigns being waged over Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Now it's time to see the dueling documentaries.

Taking a cue from flamboyant moviemaker Michael Moore, critics of the discount store giant are spending "hundreds of thousands of dollars" advertising documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald's new Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price production that premieres in New York tonight.

Even before they've seen the 90-minute film, officials at the Bentonville, Ark., chain attacked the film as "pure propaganda" and plugged a positive alternative documentary that debuts Nov. 12 called Why Wal-Mart Works and Why That Drives Some People Crazy .

"We haven't seen the Greenwald film, but after we saw the trailer, which had three errors of fact about us, it became clear this filmmaker had little regard for the truth," said Bob McAdam, a Wal-Mart spokesman. "People are entitled to their opinion, but you're not supposed to just make stuff up."

The films will offer starkly different takes on the fallout of how Wal-Mart does business.

Ron Galloway's 75-minute effort started out as a book on how Wal-Mart's state-of-the-art logistics and vendor relationships revolutionized retailing. But he ended up making a film after Wal-Mart provided access to its executives and employees. His handlers say it was a coincidence both films debut within a week of each other.

Greenwald's film focuses more on Wal-Mart pay and benefits, and what the director suggests the company has done to lower the lot of workers, families and American small business.

"If people just say it's a good film, we have failed," said Lisa Smithline, spokeswoman for Greenwald. "We aim to educate and inspire, then motivate and activate people to do something about it."

Greenwald, whose last release was Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism , raised $1.8-million privately to make his film. He's relying on union-backed critics at WakeUp Wal-Mart to advertise and promote it in a campaign that kicked off Monday with prints ads in USA Today and major media centers, as well as spots on CNN and CNBC. It costs $12.95 for the DVD or VHS tape. But a schedule of 3,000 free screenings the critics group organized of the film - including a half-dozen in the Tampa Bay area - can be found online at the Web site www.walmartmovie.com

"I don't think Wal-Mart realizes yet the firestorm that's been generated about their company," said Chris Kofinas, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch, a coalition of the retailer's critics. "It is going to be amusing to see their version of a documentary."

The alternative and more upbeat video version of Wal-Mart's effect on business, shoppers and employees was directed by Atlanta filmmaker Ron Galloway, whose work has appeared on PBS. His film cost $85,000, none of which came from Wal-Mart. In fact, the chain will not even stock the film in its stores. The only way to see it is to pay $14.95 on Web sites such as Amazon.com, which is scheduled to begin taking orders fo r it today, or in bookstores. More information about the film can be found online at www.whywal-martworks.com

But Wal-Mart is actively using its own vast public relations apparatus to promote it. The film's handlers expect most copies will be sold to schools and libraries, which will make it available free.

The controversy stirred up by the Greenwald film has opened the doors to tons of free exposure on the TV talk show circuit. The two directors debated Wal-Mart on CNN on Monday night. Bookings for more cable chat shows and network TV morning show appearances are in the works.

"We're talking with the Today show and other national programs that never would have been interested in our documentary had it not been for the Greenwald film," said Eric Parkinson, spokesman for Hanover House, the Fayetteville, Ark., DVD distributor handling Galloway's pro-Wal-Mart documentary.

"We had Bob Greenwald on CNBC and Lou Dobbs Monday, and expect to have a lot more national shows lined up," said Smithline, who handles publicity for Greenwald's Brave New Films.

Wal-Mart also released a letter Galloway wrote to Greenwald offering to show his film for free to audiences Wal-Mart Watch is gathering to see Greenwald's film. So far, there has been no response.

--Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or 727 893-8252.