Most of the 4 million people who saw director Robert Greenwald's last
movie, a critique of Fox News called "Outfoxed," caught it at a house party.
The independent film ignited liberal audiences last year without the benefit of
a Hollywood distributor, major studio or much of a theatrical release.
Labor and faith groups are shooting higher with this week's premiere of
Greenwald's "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price": They hope to use the film
to coalesce a social movement around criticism of the world's largest retailer.
Wal-Mart is countering with a campaign worthy of the final days before an
election -- circulating a review panning Greenwald's directorial efforts in a
1980 Olivia Newton-John vehicle.
And Wal-Mart officials haven't even seen the new film yet. That will
change after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom presides over Wednesday's West
Coast premiere at a Fort Mason benefit screening.
"Wal-Mart" DVDs will screen at more than 6,800 locales, including house
parties, churches and labor halls. There will be plenty of opportunities to see
the film in politically blue parts of the country such as New York and San
Francisco, a city with no Wal-Marts but 11 scheduled screenings. However, there
will also be a dozen showings in both deep-red Kansas and Georgia, and others
in rural areas where Wal-Marts dominate the landscape.
Many of the screenings will happen during a "Wal-Mart Week of Action"
starting Nov. 13. More than 400 groups, including the Sierra Club and Service
Employees International Union, will use the film's premiere to publicize their
anger at the nation's largest private employer.
Their grievances are the ones labor and liberal groups have been pushing
for several years -- that nearly half Wal-Mart's employees have no private
health insurance or are on Medicaid, that most of its stock is produced by
cheap overseas labor, and that by building stores on the fringes of towns, it
contributes to sprawl and destruction of the environment.
The SEIU is also one of the main financial backers of WalmartWatch.com, a
6-month-old organizing hub for the chain's critics that has posted leaked
company documents and coordinates protests and legislation aimed at Wal-Mart.
The movement-wrapped-around-a-movie that WalmartWatch.com is organizing
with Greenwald is a new strategy. The 61-year-old director encouraged the
social activism-entertainment link from the moment he started work on the
project last fall.
"Before I even shot one second of footage, I hired an organizer,"
Greenwald said in an interview from Los Angeles.
"Our goal isn't to close Wal-Mart down," said Greenwald, who paid for half
the film's $2 million production costs himself. The rest was paid for by two
private liberal donors. "It is to make it a better, more humane company toward
its employees and the communities it is in."
Lisa Smithline, the organizer Greenwald hired, said, "If people leave the
movie saying, 'That was a good movie,' then we failed at some level. We want
them to be energized to do something about it."
Wal-Mart is swatting back criticism with what it calls an "aggressive"
public relations campaign.
"We've got a lot of things planned," said Bob McAdam, vice president of
corporate affairs. "Anything is possible."
Five days before the movie's scheduled premiere in New York on Tuesday,
Wal-Mart released a 10-page press release criticizing it as "propaganda video."
The missive dusted off three pages of negative reviews of Greenwald's
nonpolitical films, including a 25-year-old Newsweek thumbs-down for the
Newton-John dud "Xanadu," which said, "Robert Greenwald, the director, should
look into another line of work."
"When you look at who is funding this (campaign), it's no great surprise,"
McAdam said. "That coalition (of labor unions and environmentalists) has worked
together in the past."
It's been a public week of soul-searching for the retailer, not all of it
intentional. A leaked internal memo from Wal-Mart's executive vice president of
benefits, Susan Chambers, conceded that nearly half its workforce is uninsured
or on Medicaid and noted that overall, its workers spend double the national
average on health care. The memo was a rare admission that criticism is
affecting the company, whose stock price has fallen 21 percent in the past
The leak followed several we're-going-to-do-better announcements from
Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, who promised to improve health benefits and cut energy
use at stores. On Friday in Washington, D.C., Wal-Mart plans to hold an
academic conference on its economic impact, both locally and nationally.
The "Wal-Mart" DVD isn't the only dart being aimed at the chain, however.
The next month will bring a wave of Wal-Mart analysis from liberal
publications, which, in an unusual example of cooperation, are timing their
stories for the release of the "Wal-Mart" movie.
The Nation, the American Prospect, In These Times and the San
Francisco-based online site Alternet are all scheduled to run stories examining
everything from Wal-Mart's opposition to union organizing to the philanthropy
of its founders, the Walton family.
In his previous house-party film, Greenwald took a swing at Fox News for
aping Republican talking points and contributing to a conservative echo
chamber. Alternet Executive Editor Don Hazen, who coordinated the timed pieces,
insisted this is different.
"This is not everybody saying the same thing," said Hazen, whose site is
selling the "Wal-Mart" DVD. "Everybody has their own take.
"All the news is becoming more opinionated anyway," Hazen said. "You can
be opinionated as long as you have the research to back it up."
There's a media link to the pro-Wal-Mart campaign, too -- a DVD to be
released Nov. 15 by company supporter Ron Galloway called, "Why Wal-Mart Works
and Why That Makes Some People Crazy."
"I think a lot of people like to use Wal-Mart as a straw man," said
Galloway, a Georgia investment counselor who said he funded the $65,000 film
with his brother Robert, a producer of outdoors shows for ESPN2.
Ron Galloway said the brothers had nearly no cooperation from Wal-Mart,
although the company spent two pages of its 10-page Greenwald critique
reprinting a press release on Galloway's film.
"I totally admire what Greenwald has been able to do in terms of
distributing the film," said Galloway, who said he didn't set out to make a
pro-Wal-Mart piece. "But he and I just see this differently."
Greenwald and his supporters insist this isn't a political film.
"Wal-Mart" is full of real-people stories, told largely by former and current
employees taking on the retailer. Many of the film's stories are rooted in
rural areas of the states that supported President Bush last year, including
Ohio, North Carolina and Texas.
Scott, the Wal-Mart chief executive officer, declined to be in the movie.
Instead, Greenwald weaves footage of Scott in interviews or at shareholders
meetings to make the executive the de facto narrator of the film.
Borrowing a page from the conservative playbook's reliance on the
religious right, the film's accompanying campaign is being anchored by faith
"It is about creating a moral economy," said the Rev. Ron Stief, a
Washington-based leader for United Church of Christ, whose churches are hosting
dozens of screenings. "Fifty percent of our congregations are rural, and these
communities are seeing the impact of Wal-Mart every day," in the demise of
mom-and-pop businesses, he said.
The film's backers face a challenge, however -- many communities have
welcomed Wal-Mart. More than 11,000 people filed applications to work at the
chain's new store in East Oakland, a job-starved area that other retailers have
shunned. The store has been bustling since it opened in August, and the
neighborhood has 400 new jobs.
"We get a lot of pushback from African American people who say, 'Hey, I
like Wal-Mart,' " said the Rev. Jarvis Johnson, who is organizing faith groups
for WalmartWatch.com. "But what I try to tell people is, 'Yes, Wal-Mart is
offering you jobs. But a year from now, 40 percent of you will find out that
they're not paying you enough, and you will not be able to afford health care.'
The decision about Wal-Mart and the movie-movement will ultimately be in
the hands of people like those who will gather Nov. 19 in Dee Dee Robbins'
living room in Santa Rosa to watch Greenwald's DVD. Half will be her fellow
students at Sonoma State University, most of whom are critical of Wal-Mart. The
rest will be friends, many of whom shop at the Wal-Mart in Rohnert Park.
"I just hope they will walk away from the movie and change the way they do
business with Wal-Mart," said Robbins, 46. "But I don't know what they'll
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle