When the furore about the Rev Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama was at its height a few months ago, one of the biggest hits on YouTube revealed that the Republican contender John McCain had his own pastor problem.
Sandwiched between the kind of comic clips for which the site is best known, the video produced by Brave New Films showed the Rev Rod Parsley, a spiritual adviser to John McCain, making incendiary comments about Islam. When the mainstream media ran the story, McCain was eventually forced to distance himself from the church leader.
The success of the video and the sequel – The Real McCain 2, which documented several policy flip-flops on issues such as Iraq and the US economy, and was viewed more than 500,000 times within the first 24 hours of being released on to YouTube – justified the decision by Robert Greenwald, Brave New Films’ founder, to move from feature films into an online career.
Greenwald, 62, began his career in television before directing movies, including the kitsch classic Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John. The death of his father and the 9/11 attacks convinced him to switch to doing more socially worthwhile work. He began making feature-length documentaries, tackling such targets as Fox News – in 2004’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism – and the world’s biggest retailer in Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.
The films were critically praised and reached a large audience, but Greenwald decided to abandon long documentaries and move into producing fast turnaround online videos 16 months ago.
Calling it “an interesting transition”, Greenwald recalls being in the same editing room a few months ago in which he once edited a six-hour mini-series. “Back then I was trying to lose 20 minutes from an edit – now the finished film I am making may only be four minutes long and the job is to lose 20 seconds.”
He decided to make short pieces because he “wanted to make content that was quicker, shorter and more immediate in the news cycle.
“You could spend 12 months making a documentary and releasing it, and having your moment in the sun about something that may no longer be in the news cycle any more. Or you can spend 24 hours to put together a short viral video which can actually make a difference.”
Brave New Films has an email database of about 450,000 people, who have in the past purchased DVDs or signed up for updates; each new video is emailed to this core constituency who are then urged to send it on.
The company has also developed contacts with key bloggers and social networking sites to ensure that it doesn’t just preach to the converted.
The films have affected the campaigning of both presidential candidates. Greenwald cites the example of a video series that highlighted the huge increase in the wages of corporate executives. Within a month of the videos being released, Barack Obama had incorporated the theme of executive pay into his speeches.
Footage of McCain praising his spiritual adviser as “a moral compass” was combined with clips of Parsley railing against Islam and saying “America was founded in part with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed”.
In the past it might have been left to paid party operatives and professional political spin doctors to launch the kind of attacks that Brave New Films has directed towards John McCain. Greenwald says he has no ties to the Democratic party or to Obama’s campaign and calls himself a full-time volunteer.
“There are issues that need to be addressed regardless of the candidates,” he says. “People who run for election have the job of getting elected, but our job is to create the passion to force whoever is in charge to do the right thing.”
Brave New Films is registered with the IRS as a “social welfare” organisation. Such groups are allowed to engage in political campaigning, but aren’t supposed to make campaigning their primary activity.
Its offices are in a former Los Angeles motel that, I am told, was once used by film executives to entertain their mistresses. I am shown around by Eddie Kurtz, one of the company’s 35 employees and, like most of the others, still in his 20s.
“This isn’t some bedroom operation,” he tells me as we walk past rooms filled with humming hard drives and flickering monitors. One room is devoted to rapid response, trying to combat stories that may have arisen in that morning’s press – for example, the “Obama is a Muslim” rumours – while in another, a team are working on more long-term projects.
In an adjoining building, a newly constructed studio is nearing completion that will mark the next stage of Brave New Films’ evolution: online broadcasting.
“The plan is to have live studio webcasts,” says Kurtz,”anything up to 20 programmes – everything from Meet the Bloggers to uninterrupted election coverage to progressive cooking shows, and it will be completely interactive.”
“The company is largely funded from charitable foundations,” says Greenwald. “Then there’s about 8,000 subscribers who give us monthly donations, say $10 a month, and we have a few high-income individuals who donate larger sums.”
These high-income donors are often, he acknowledges, people who have made money in entertainment, and who want to help those producing something more meaningful.
Greenwald believes his opinionated work fills a space that has been vacated by broadcasters and papers that haven’t been sufficiently critical – “the mainstream media hasn’t been doing its job and there was a need for others to come in”.
“When we put out a video, it literally goes to the top of YouTube,” he adds. “And you see that right above us in the list is a woman falling in a shower and behind us is a singing cat and right smack in the middle is a film about corporate greed or John McCain – that’s an audience you used to have to spend millions trying to reach, and yet we are getting them in significant numbers.”
Does Greenwald not miss the glamour of feature-film making?
“It’s nice to have a premiere with a red carpet and seeing your name in lights,” he says. “But now there’s the satisfaction of having people watch these videos, then pass them on and then sign petitions and make phonecalls. Everything else just pales in comparison: this is the real deal.”