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Last month, Politico’s Mike Allen asked presidential hopeful John McCain the seemingly innocent question of how many houses he owned. McCain’s response — “I’ll have my staff get to you” — became a major focus for both the media and Obama’s campaign, who repeated it in just about every speech to illustrate that the Republican candidate was “out of touch” with the millions of Americans affected by the housing crisis.

But months before Allen asked that loaded question, liberal activist and filmmaker Robert Greenwald, founder of Brave New Films, had come across a news item mentioning McCain’s multiple homes.

“This was maybe six or eight months ago,” Greenwald told me. “And I said, ‘nobody knows about that. This is really interesting.’ And I wondered if we could get video of the homes.”

So, in an editorial meeting with his staff, they came up with a three-pronged approach to the story. First, they would collect video footage of all of the candidate’s houses. Then they began combing through news reports and video to find quotes from McCain about the housing crisis (“Because it was not just to show he had the homes, it was to show that his policy was reflective of him having those homes,” Greenwald explained). Finally, they sat down and interviewed Americans who had lost their properties to foreclosure.

“At which point the editors took over,” he recalled. “I worked with them for three weeks. We went up and back, making 12, 13, 14 versions, getting the timing right, getting the balance right between the three stories.”

The resulting video, “McCain’s Mansions,” launched on YouTube several days before Allen approached McCain with the question about his houses. It has now amassed over 400,000 views.

From Documentaries to YouTube

Greenwald doesn’t take complete credit for the media blow-up that ensued, but he said that it certainly helped in driving the issue into the national spotlight. Though most of his career has been spent working in traditional film — he’s helped make over 50 television movies and feature films and then transferred over to documentaries — for more than a year now he has focused intensely on short online political videos produced and distributed by Brave New Films.

Since he began working in this new medium, the company’s YouTube videos have received more than 26 million views. And later this month, Brave New Films will be distributing what it claims to be the first full-length feature movie made by a major filmmaker to be released for free online: Michael Moore’s documentary “Slacker Uprising.”

Greenwald first migrated to online video almost two years ago, after directing a wave of successful documentaries, including “Outfoxed,” a film about the alleged conservative bias of Fox News, and “Iraq for Sale,” a movie that later led to him testifying before a congressional committee about war profiteering.

“Right at the time that we were most successful, we went counterintuitive in our vision that we were going to work on political video for this new thing that we were starting to hear about called YouTube,” he said. “Because it’s just a few years old and there was no evidence at the time to support the fact that people would watch anything other than cats playing the piano or naked women falling down in showers. But we analyzed it carefully here, and we felt it was a really strong opportunity and no one was doing it.”

The group started with a series called “Fox Attacks,” pointing out instances when the news outlet unfairly attacked Obama or other political figures. It produced videos that harshly criticized Rudy Giuliani, using interviews with the families of 9/11 victims to argue that he shouldn’t be running for president based on how he handled the tragedy. And then after McCain announced his presidential ambitions, Brave New Films started what would become one of its most popular series, “The Real McCain.” One of the videos in this series, “McCain’s YouTube Problem Just Became a Nightmare,” has received more than 4 million views.

Brave New Films has a staff of about 40 people both producing and promoting the videos. Even so, Greenwald refuses to take a back seat in the actual directing of the pieces.

“Once a director, always a director,” he replied. “We die with our boots on…I still play the classic director role, which means driving the editors crazy, going through many versions helping drive the story. I always ask, even on a three minute piece, what’s the story? What’s the beginning? What’s the middle? What’s the end?”

Building Buzz and Criticism

Greenwald doesn’t take a salary, but his entire staff is paid. Since most of Brave New Films’ work is released for free, it raises much of its money through donations and fundraising. Greenald said that he has over 9,000 donors, ranging from those who give $5 a month to others who donate thousands of dollars at a time.

Though Brave New Films’ YouTube channel has nearly 20,000 subscribers, its staff still heavily promotes its videos. Greenwald said they will typically approach bloggers first to create early buzz before reaching out to contacts in the mainstream media. His YouTube videos have been widely linked on left-of-center sites like Daily Kos, Crooks and Liars, and Huffington Post, and they’ve also made front page on social news site Digg.

Predictably, Greenwald has been the recipient of ire from the conservative blogosphere, most notably Hot Air, one of the most popular sites on the right. The publication has labeled the filmmaker a “feeble leftist propagandist” and accused Greenwald of taking a McCain quote about staying in Iraq for 100 years wildly out of context.

“I dare say, this almost constitutes fearmongering, doesn’t it?” Allahpundit asked rhetorically. “Exit question: Can a halfwit who thinks poetry slams are an effective tool for anti-war messaging ever really ‘lighten up and get a life’?”

Most of the criticism of Greenwald on Hot Air comes directly from Allahpundit, who has taken the time to mock his videos on multiple occasions. “Are they going after McCain because they know he’s the likely nominee and want to start beating up on him early?” he asked of Brave New Films. “Or because they suspect he’s a closet liberal who betrayed the cause? Or both?”

A Pass-Around Documentary

On September 23, Brave New Films will be releasing its biggest project to date: Michael Moore’s “Slacker Uprising,” a documentary of his speaking tour to swing state universities to rally young people to the voting booths in November. Those who wish to watch the film must sign up at the Slacker Uprising website to download it for free.

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Michael Moore

“I’ve known Michael for a long time; we actually marched together at the RNC,” Greenwald said. “He called me out of the blue a couple months ago saying, ‘I’ve got this film, and I’ve got this crazy idea to make it free for people. And after seeing how you guys are working online, I was wondering if you’re interested.’ I said it’s a brilliant idea, and we’d love to use our expertise to help get it out there and reach as many people as possible. And we were off to the races.”

But this isn’t the first time Moore toyed with the idea of free online distribution. After the release of his 2004 documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” he famously said, “I don’t agree with copyright laws and I don’t have a problem with people downloading the movie and sharing it…as long as they’re not trying to make a profit off my labor.” Predictably, the film’s distributor, Lions Gate Films, did not endorse this move.

Greenwald said that he has had no editorial input in Moore’s film; Brave New Films is merely acting as a distributor. But does he care if downloaders pass the film around? And should people only download it from the movie’s official website?

“We want everyone in the world to email it,” he replied. “We want everyone in the world to copy it. We want everyone in the world to see it. We will be making every effort to get it out there. The website will be the home base, if you will, and then from there we want it to spread and spread and spread.”

I asked him to compare working in online media to his background in more traditional filmmaking.

“There’s a great line about democracy not being a spectator’s sport,” Greenwald said. “If you believe that then the opportunity to take one’s storytelling skills and use them around critical issues is quite extraordinary. I love working in film, TV, video, digital and telling stories. Now, telling those stories potentially has an impact on people’s lives and issues.

“When I worked for the studio, I felt responsibility to the studio or network because they gave you X millions of dollars for a film or a mini series, and I felt responsible to do a good job. But when you’re dealing with Fox News, or you’re dealing with people who lost loved ones in Iraq, or you’re dealing with economic disparity in this country — man, the stakes are high. But it’s exciting, and I consider it a plus that you’re using your craft, your skill set to reach and talk to people about the most important issues of the day.”

Simon Owens is an associate blogger for MediaShift. He also writes the Bloggasm blog, launched in late 2005 and focusing on the intersection of new and old media. It often includes in-depth feature articles on a variety of media subjects.

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