New movie spreads by word of mouth
John Cusack: Bypassing the Corporate Media
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By Joshua HollandWith his movie, War, Inc., John Cusack bypassed the corporate gate-keepers of the media and used the alternative media to take the film directly to the anti-war audience. Those Americans would watch it not only for its subversive entertainment value but also for its statement – told through its absurdist lens.
War, Inc. was the first theatrical release to have such a marketing strategy. "We did some of the usual interviews to promote the project," Cusack said. "But we also did dozens of interviews with alternative outlets and leading progressive bloggers. We started a My Space page that has some rabidly active folks down for the cause.... I posted diaries on DailyKos; we did live chats with readers of blogs like Crooks and Liars. The progressive community really got behind the film and any success we have had and will have for the life of the film is due to these sites and the online community."
The film's advertising budget was next-to-nothing; Cusack said "the project had no corporate backing." In June, when the release expanded to Massachusetts, New Jersey, Texas, Connecticut, Washington, and Illinois, indy journalist Larisa Alexandrova noted that it was "thanks to word-of-mouth, the alternative press and the blogosphere."
The gap between the dismissive snorts from commercial outlets like The Washington Post and the film's reception in the alternative media was a mile wide.
The Nation's Jeremy Scahill called the film "this generation's Dr. Strangelove and "a powerful, visionary response to the cheerleading culture of the corporate media and a pliant Hollywood afraid of its own shadow."
Arianna Huffington wrote that the film found "a savage reality-altering humor amidst the tragedy of Iraq. It delivers a wicked punch in the gut, making you laugh, wince, and get outraged all at the same time."
Naomi Klein, whose work Cusack and his co-writers followed closely while working on the script, told Huffington that the film "cranks up the dial on the state of privatized war just enough that we can finally see our present clearly. As you're watching it, you can't help wondering: can these guys really get away with this?"
War, Inc.'s opening weekend -- in a limited New York-L.A. release -- came in second only to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in average take per screen (the only way to compare smaller independent films with their big-budget cousins). Now showing in 20 cities and towns, the flick continues to hold its own; in its seventh week of release, it came in 31st in average take per theater last weekend (among films in at least ten theaters), beating block-busters like Iron Man, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Speed Racer. Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! has grossed about three hundred times what War, Inc. has raked in, but its per-theater average was about a quarter of the indy film's take last weekend.
It's an impressive showing for a film that almost didn't get made. Cusack started shopping the project around just as Dixie Chicks' CDs were being thrown onto bonfires, and not long after White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer warned that "nowadays you have to be careful what you say and do," and nobody was biting. For the major studios, it was too "anti-corporate"; they feared it'd be seen as "anti-American." The film was eventually shot on a shoestring budget in Bulgaria, financed with European cash.
What was it that grabbed the attention of progressive audiences? The film is funny, but it also appears that War, Inc. tapped into a deep well of white-hot anger about the ideologically-driven war Bush and his supporters unleashed on the world, an anger that many people hold, but which is rarely reflected in the mainstream discourse about Iraq.
There's a bumper sticker, made popular by the Bush regime, which reads, "if you aren't completely appalled, then you haven't been paying attention." Millions of Americans have been paying attention, many bypassing the mainstream US media, and that is where War, Inc. has drawn its audience. Cusack hopes it will continue to do so. "It's almost unheard of for an independent film like War, Inc. to do eight weeks in the theaters during the summer," he told me. "With a little luck, maybe the film can keep defying expectations and stay in the theaters right through to the election."
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