October 17, 2008
Looking a Gift Economy in the Mouth: Michael Moore's SLACKER UPRISING

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Michael Moore with the subject "'Slacker Uprising' Now Belongs to You (Down/Load, Rise/Up!)." I've spent my first month with the Consortium examining the principles of spreadable media with a special focus on internet distribution of TV and film, so I was more than a little excited to see that Moore made his latest film, Slacker Uprising available to download for free without advertising.

Moore's email goes on to espouse some of the most important tenets of spreadable media--gifting and sharing: "[Slacker Uprising] is available for free as a gift from me to all of you. And you have my permission to share it or show it in any way you see fit." This seems like quite a boon for spreadable media, especially considering the film is available in a variety of formats including streaming video, iTunes download, Amazon VoD, and even BitTorrent.

The film itself is a joint venture between Moore's production company, Dog Eat Dog Films; independent internet TV site, blip.tv; and Robert Greenwald's activist film site, Brave New Films. Slacker Uprising chronicles Moore's 62-city tour to get out the vote before the 2004 presidential election. While Moore's efforts in this campaign are certainly noble, Slacker Uprising has none of Moore's signature liberal message hidden beneath man-on-the-street folksiness. This film meanders through long segments of Moore and various celebrities taking the stage before stadiums of screaming fans; I doubt it has the power to change anyone's mind about politics, but that's not Moore's aim.

On his website, Moore gives two reasons for giving the film away for free:

  1. Next year it will be 20 years since my first film, "Roger & Me," so I'd like to give those of you who've supported my work over the years a thank you gift in the form of a brand new movie; and
  2. I hope the release and wide distribution of this new movie will help to bring out millions of young and new voters on November 4th.
In terms of the film's content, the second reason proves more successful than the first. Slacker Uprising gives people good reason to vote democratic as it documents the nasty tactics conservatives took against Moore after the release of his 2004 anti-Bush administration documentary, Fahrenheit 911. Also, the timing of Slacker Uprising's release is no accident-- Moore clearly wants us to remember the injustices of the 2004 election as we head to the polls this November.

As a gift to Moore's fans, however, Slacker Uprising is not a film on par with Fahrenheit 911 or Moore's breakout indictment of the auto industry, Roger and Me. Those films are well-crafted arguments that challenge people to question government and corporate policies. Slacker Uprising, on the other hand, doesn't make any new arguments. Instead, it serves only to reinforce the anti-conservative views of those who are already Moore fans to begin with.

So what does the distribution of Slacker Uprising mean for spreadable media? Free distribution certainly won't hinder the film reaching its target liberal demographic, but will it have much of an impact? Other political films have achieved some measure of success outside mainstream distribution systems. For example, Robert Greenwald's Iraq for Sale was produced and distributed outside of the corporate film industry and is available for free online and through certain cable Video on Demand services. Iraq for Sale, like Moore's earlier films, is filled with provocative content that started conversations. Slacker Uprising lacks a similarly powerful message, but it still has the potential to reach a large audience because it's branded as a Michael Moore product.

From a practical standpoint, Slacker Uprising doesn't offer a model for how to monetize free content, either. Unlike ad-supported content, or "pay what it's worth" models like Radiohead used to release their album, In Rainbows last year, Moore isn't trying to make any money from Slacker Uprising. DVDs are available for around $10 through slackeruprising.com, but even then, Moore promises to release a lower-priced DVD some time in October. Though Moore isn't asking fans for money, he still expects something in exchange for Slacker Uprising. Moore has given away a film hoping it will inspire political activism in a critical election year.

Will this kind of transaction become a norm as free content becomes more prevalent? Slacker Uprising could provide an interesting example of the impact of quality and branding as we try to articulate tangible distinctions between "free" content and content that will spread.