Changing Reels: N.Y.’s Auteurs Make Ads for Small Screen

Tom Bernard, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, the studio behind such sophisticated fare as Howard’s End and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, recently had a revelation. The studio executive and Democratic donor has been quietly observing the year of the political documentary, of left-leaning fare like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Going Upriver as they unspool in theaters from Austin, Tex., to Los Angeles and lap up media attention. And Mr. Bernard isn’t impressed with their effectiveness during this intense election—for him, when it comes to winning votes for John Kerry, it’s all about the TV ads like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s 30-second jeremiads, which badly damaged Mr. Kerry in the late summer.

“It’s not about the documentaries; it’s about the TV spots,” emphasizes Mr. Bernard. “And it always has been—whether it’s an Oscar campaign, a Presidential campaign or a Congressional campaign.”

So he’s doing his part by helping documentary filmmaker Errol Morris find funding for his political ads, but it may be too little, too late. In early September, it was announced that MoveOn.org was going to sink $3 million into a pro-Kerry ad campaign, created by Mr. Morris, which targeted undecided voters. Since then, according to Mr. Morris, only four out of the 50 30-second commercials he’s made have aired due to the increasingly hectic nature of the campaign, which demands quick-response ads. The spots, which largely feature Republicans voting for Senator Kerry speaking plainly against a white background, can currently be seen only on the Web site of Mr. Morris, the Academy Award–winning director of the documentary The Fog of War.

“They’re the most persuasive commercials since Tony Schwartz made political commercials in the 60’s,” said Mr. Bernard, who believes that all of the political documentaries were a misguided attempt to sway swing voters. “It was a mistake; you’re preaching to the converted. The battleground is this 12 to 15 percent of undecided voters. That’s the whole campaign.”

Mr. Bernard exemplifies the new vanguard of the Hollywood left, those who bitterly learned their lesson during the 2000 election saga, when all those celebrity-filled fund-raisers at gated mansions in Beverly Hills didn’t help Al Gore win Florida. This time around, they’ve realized that the most effective political weapons they have are not posing for cameras and writing checks, but heading out into the heartland to register voters and making TV commercials. In this election, New York’s directors, producers and film executives are adding elbow grease to greasing palms.

“Hey all, I got scared,” begins an Oct. 21 mass e-mail from Hedwig director John Cameron Mitchell. “So, I’m going to Ohio next week through election day to do what I can.”

This kind of election missive is not unusual, according to many within the industry, who on a daily basis are being bombarded by e-mails soliciting get-out-the-vote help from colleagues with connections to the so-called 527 groups like MoveOn, America Coming Together and Downtown for Democracy. The most successful P.A.C., though, in galvanizing the young indie-film set is Bring Ohio Back, co-founded by GreeneStreet Films head Fisher Stevens and actor Chad Lowe. In early October, they organized a two-day bus trip through Ohio with the likes of New Yorkers Steve Buscemi, Marisa Tomei and David Duchovny to register voters in the battleground state. But there is still work to be done.

“It’s fine to get people registered, but the next problem is to get them to vote,” Mr. Stevens said over the phone from Los Angeles, where he was raising money for a last-minute commercial starring Martin Sheen and Robert Redford and directed by Mr. Lowe. The weekend before the election, Mr. Stevens and Mr. Lowe will be returning to Ohio with America Coming Together and some of their star-studded friends, to get people to sign a pledge to vote and tell at least one other person to vote as well. “We don’t want to be a bunch of actors getting on our pedestals. We’re citizens doing something because we have the opportunity to do it.”

And some of the backers behind the documentary renaissance, such as ThinkFilm, the New York–based distributor of Going Upriver, the George Butler documentary about Senator John Kerry’s Vietnam service, are adjusting to the changing tide as well. Along with Jeff Dowd, a veteran film consultant, they’ve been pushing the film with specialized screenings featuring big stars like Brad Pitt (“The next thing you know, he’s taking a DVD to show to his parents in Missouri,” remembers Mr. Dowd), Paul Newman and Cher on college campuses in several swing states, including Missouri, New Hampshire and Florida.

“All of us are sleepless,” said Mr. Dowd, who got his start in the film business by working on the marketing of the Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds. “We’re tired and inspired. We’re working 20 hours a day. I’m up at 5 in the morning to do radio, and then I follow the sun west.”

With all of the Hollywood star power traveling to swing statesto promote the pro-Kerry DVD, its marketing campaign resembles the efforts of the 527’s. In fact, MoveOn is helping ThinkFilm push the film, putting together 970 free screenings last week on college campuses around the country.

“Not only have I not seen the film community [this jazzed up], I haven’t seen the colleges, the unions, hundreds of grass-roots organizations …. And I was there in the 60’s, in the middle of it,” said Mr. Dowd, who was sounding a little bit fired-up himself—very unlike Jeffrey (the Dude) Lebowski, the hero of the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski, who was based on Mr. Dowd. “This is unparalleled!”

The firm is also applying that strategy to other films, coordinating a screening of the upcoming The Assassination of Richard Nixon for college students in Boston. Sean Penn, director Niels Mueller and producer Alfonso Cuaron will be on hand to show the movie, a semi-fictionalized tale of a down-on-his-luck furniture salesman who makes an ill-fated attempt on the life of Tricky Dick.

“The film is about the effects of a corrupt and impersonal Republican administration that has lead its country into a polarizing and unpopular war, and where there are serious indications that an election has been tampered with,” said ThinkFilm distribution head Mark Urman, doing little to cover up his own political leanings. “So even though the film is set in 1974, everything that I’ve said applies to 2004. As a result, the star of the film—who is not Mr. Publicity—is actually willing to do something that I wouldn’t have ever thought would interest him.”

Conspicuously absent in this pre-election frenzy of Hollywood liberals is Harvey Weinstein, the slimmed-down poobah of Miramax. Four years ago, he hosted lavish galas during the Democratic National Convention, and on the day Hillary Rodham Clinton was elected to the Senate, Mr. Weinstein threw her a congratulatory party at Elaine’s. This year, perhaps distracted by his battles with Disney chief Michael Eisner, Mr. Weinstein has been a very low-key presence in the Kerry campaign, even though he’s reportedly donated $52,000 to the D.N.C. and raised millions more with concerts. He skipped the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and he’s got different plans for Nov. 2, spending Election Night at the Palm, where he and Republican power broker Georgette Mosbacher are hosting a bipartisan viewing party.

Although sometimes, Mr. Weinstein just can’t help himself. At the Oct. 25 premiere of Miramax’s Finding Neverland, hosted by Mrs. Clinton at the Brooklyn Museum, Mr. Weinstein was the only political animal in attendance. The Senator, looking relaxed, opened the evening with some tepid remarks about Brooklyn and its renaissance, avoiding any mention of the Presidential election. It was a bizarre omission, one that the Senator did little to correct after the screening.

“We talked all day about politics—she’s just excited to have a reprieve from all that,” her spokeswoman, Jennifer Hanley, told The Observer.

When Mr. Weinstein, in a black suit and tie reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs, approached the stage and thanked his “great friend,” he seemed a subdued version of his larger-than-life personality, whispering into the microphone that his Brooklyn roots were strong and bragging that he still knows how to make an egg cream. Pausing for a second, he raised his voice and made a deal with the audience: If they disliked the movie, they could hang him and his brother Bob; if they liked it, they had to “find 10 unregistered voters and get them to vote for John Kerry.” Then he proceeded to mock Dick Cheney’s election tactics and voice his doubts that the upcoming elections in Iraq would actually take place, as the Bush administration has vowed.

“I promised my staff that I would not get political,” he deadpanned.

Perhaps Mr. Weinstein was saving his best stuff for the Oct. 26 fund-raiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which he co-hosted with Jane Rosenthal and Arthur G. Altschul, among other Manhattan luminaries. Or maybe he was saving all of his ideas for the senior Kerry advisors he’s been consulting ever since the debates, according to his representative, on the candidate’s image and ads. Either way, he’s definitely been overshadowed by other liberals in the film industry, who are approaching this election with a developing insight into what really appeals to voters in the heartland.

“It’s so simple!” exclaims Mr. Morris. “If the electorate is polarized and the election is going to be decided by swing voters in those crucial states: How do you reach them? How do you create advertising to reach them?”

To that effect, Mr. Morris has been consulting with pro-Kerry team leaders, from guru Bob Shrum (“We had so many conversations leading up to the convention”) to George Soros (“I met him a couple of months ago and told him, ‘I hope things work out. If not, I’ll see you in Guantánamo”). Citing his long track record of making polished TV ads for Apple Computers and AT&T, Mr. Morris is confident that his ads can reach those voters and show them the appeal of John Kerry: “If I can humanize Robert McNamara [the subject of The Fog of War], I can humanize anyone.”

These activists in the film world are possessed of a fervor that befits those who are still haunted by the 2000 debacle. Many of them sat on the fence last election, all but assured that Al Gore would win, and they now find themselves with an urgent sense of doing something—anything—lest they feel guilty the day after the election.

“Frankly, on Nov. 3, everybody who doesn’t work 24/7 between now and then—the blood’s on our hands,” said Mr. Dowd. “The blood’s on our hands.”