Calling in Sicko

Michael Moore takes to the phones to promote his new movie.

Michael Moore. Click image to expand.
Michael Moore

The other day, a Slate staffer got a call from a person—a real, live person—asking if she planned to go see Michael Moore’s new movie, Sicko. She said that she was indeed planning to see it but didn’t know exactly when. The caller insisted that she go this weekend, to “send a message” to the Bush administration that the country is fed up with the health-care system. What was this—an advertising campaign? Political mobilization? Some kind of Get-Out-the-Audience phone-a-thon?

All of the above. The Weinstein Company, Sicko’s distributor, has hired a Democratic “phone vendor” to contact a select group of potential moviegoers and encourage them to see the film. Phone vendors are usually employed by political campaigns and other interest groups to promote a candidate or a cause. But in this case, they just want you to watch a movie. They’ve already made “tens of thousands” of live calls, with another slew of “robo calls”—recorded messages read by Moore himself—on the way, according to the president of the firm Winning Connections. Callers target known Democratic contributors or activists in New York and Denver, where the film is being released this weekend. It’s a strategy worthy of Karl Rove: Mobilize the base and ignore the 60-year-old Republican males in Plano, Texas.

It’s no surprise that Moore is borrowing tricks from the political playbook. The consultant he hired back in May, Chris Lehane, worked for both the Clinton administration and Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run. Lehane speaks in the language of campaign literature, not summer blockbusters. Sicko, he told me, is a “call to action.” It’s “the cinematic equivalent of The Jungle.” Other aspects of the film’s promotion—or at least the buzz surrounding its release—have been equally political, even wonky. On June 20, Moore testified at Rep. John Conyers’ hearing on universal health care. That same week, he publicly invited 900 Washington health-care lobbyists to a special screening. (Only a dozen or so showed up.) He even personally hosted a screening in Manchester, N.H.—you know, the Cannes of New England. Meanwhile, Moore has been partnering with sympathetic parties from labor unions to nurses’ organizations.

Direct calling makes sense for a film like Sicko, Lehane says. For one thing, it’s more effective than billboards or TV spots because this movie’s target audience is so specific. In the case of Spider-Man 3, a TV ad would probably be a lot more effective, since just about any TV viewer is a potential Spider-Man attendee. With Sicko, however, a large chunk of TV advertising is inevitably wasted on people who would rather undergo dental surgery (insured or otherwise) than watch a Michael Moore movie. By contrast, a phone call to someone who is already a potential viewer is relatively cheap—10 to 14 cents per call. So far, more than 50 percent of the people they’ve called say they plan to see the movie. (Although it’s unclear whether the call led them to that decision.)

Of course, Moore and Co. aren’t just preaching to the choir—they’re preaching to the preachers. The practice of “micro-targeting” uses census data and donation records to reach liberals who have given money to Democratic causes or been otherwise politically active. The goal is to seek out evangelizers—people who will not only go see the movie but will also tell all their friends about it. In other words, they’re trying to make SiCKO viral.

This promotional strategy—a slow word-of-mouth campaign built to coincide with its creeping theatrical rollout—differs from that of Fahrenheit 9/11. Fahrenheit was sold as an event movie. It barged into theaters all at once, with analysts treating box-office stats as a yardstick for public disapproval of the Iraq war. Sicko, by contrast, is being pitched as a “movement” film on par with An Inconvenient Truth. It’s this intersection of entertainment and politics that makes the phone calls so interesting. Don’t go see Sickojust to be entertained and informed, the strategy implies: See it to “send a message.” The future of our health system depends on it!

On the one hand, it’s encouraging to see a studio believing that a film actually matters, and acting on that belief. But on the other, something troubles me about a major production company stealing a grass-roots campaign tactic. These callers aren’t volunteers sharing their enthusiasm for a cause; they’re getting paid to praise the virtues of universal health care. (Not that other calling campaigns are any different, of course.) Even more disturbing is what this means for movie advertising. It’s hard to imagine a scenario more horrific than Hollywood discovering telemarketing. What’s stopping Angelina Jolie from telling me that unless I see A Mighty Heart, the terrorists win? How long before I hear Steve Carell on the line saying it’s up to me to save the family comedy about animals? Let’s pray that day never arrives. Because I’m not ready to open up my phone lines to sales-happy filmmakers, no matter how affordable my co-pay might become.