Healthy debate surrounds Moore's docu 'Sicko'

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CANNES -- There's a gathering storm of controversy surrounding Michael Moore's new documentary "Sicko," which will have its world premiere Saturday at the Festival de Cannes. But as far as the international distributors circling the film are concerned, it could prove no more than a tempest in a teapot.

Pro- and anti-Moore factions are trading blows in the U.S. following news that the U.S. Treasury Department is investigating the "Fahrenheit 9/11" director for possibly violating America's trade embargo with Cuba by taking ailing Sept. 11 rescue workers to the island for medical treatment.

On Tuesday, Moore challenged former U.S. senator and possible presidential candidate Fred Thompson to a debate over health care after Thompson accused Moore of having a soft spot for Cuban leader Fidel Castro -- Moore even suggested Thompson might have violated the embargo himself by importing Montecristo cigars from Havana.

"They started this," Moore said of his critics, "and I think that somehow by making some sort of example of me, that helps them with a certain community in terms of voters." The director went so far as to send a duplicate master of the film to a "safe house" outside the country to ensure he would have no problem providing Cannes with a print.

While the debate could provide plenty of free publicity for the Weinstein Co., which will release "Sicko" in the U.S. on June 29 through Lionsgate, the Cuba controversy is not playing big overseas.

"The Cuba embargo is an issue that is very confusing for non-Americans and one that few people outside of Miami care about, to be honest," a prominent German acquisitions exec said. "The controversy is being covered by all the papers in Europe, but I don't think anyone will go see the movie because of it."

TFM Distribution, which is releasing "Sicko" in France, said they were waiting to see the reaction of the Cannes audience before forming a promotion strategy for the film. Japanese distributor Gaga Communications is adopting a similar "wait-and-see" approach.

Stateside, however, Lionsgate and the Weinstein Co. are making the Treasury Department's investigation a key focus of their "Sicko" campaign. The Weinstein Co. has hired David Boies, the chief attorney in Al Gore's recount battle against George Bush in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, to help on the "Sicko" case. Chris Lehane, a political consultant on the film, said in an interview that TWC and Lionsgate would "go to the mattresses for this film and fight the Bush efforts in every way possible."

On the anti-Moore side, News Corp. properties Fox News and the New York Post have run editorials and commentaries slamming the filmmaker.

While the Treasury Dept. triggered the current contretemps, "It's Harvey (Weinstein) up to his old tricks, doing his Barnum & Bailey act," said one prominent studio marketing executive. "It's a textbook 'create a controversy' to rev up all the people who hate the government and bring attention to the movie, which is what film marketing is all about. A-plus to them."

Whether such an approach will work in international markets depends on how provocative "Sicko" is seen to be and to what degree Moore's expose of the U.S. health care system can bridge the language/culture barrier.

Glen Basner, Weinstein Co. president of distribution, said the company is taking the same approach to promoting "Sicko" internationally as it is in the U.S.

"Moore is seen in a similar way both within and outside of the US -- a cinematic version of a Mark Twain or Will Rogers -- who uses humor and imagery to stick his finger in the eye of the establishment on behalf of the little guy," Basner said. "His movies, though focused on U.S. issues, certainly transcend an American audience because they are both funny, provocative and ultimately human ... and that is why they have enjoyed both domestic and international appeal."

For many international buyers, the challenge for Moore will not be to get people to talk about his film but to convince audiences he has something new to say.

"When 'Bowling for Columbine' and 'Fahrenheit 9/11' came out they were so new, Moore's personal style, his humor. Now everyone is doing 'Moore-style' documentaries," said a prominent European acquisitions executive. "Even 'Borat' used some of the same techniques. The question with 'Sicko' is can Moore still surprise and shock us, or will this be more of the same?"

Jonathan Landreth, Rebecca Leffler and Gregg Kilday contributed to this report.
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