Errol Morris 24/7 = Standard Marketing Procedure

1209491845Talk about a media blitz. After years of work and months of screenings, Errol Morris‘ new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, is now engaging in weeks of publicity. This harrowing film about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal just premiered in New York — it opens here on May 2 — but you’ve probably already heard about it by now through any number of magazines or newspapers.

While Morris has not been press-shy in the past, he’s hardly had this kind of blanket exposure with his previous films. But, with the controversial subject matter and the fact that this is his first feature film since he won the 2004 best documentary Oscar for The Fog of War, it’s no surprise that Morris and Sony Pictures Classics are doing the full marketing push.

We’re just glad that this strategy included a long conversation with us.

When associate research editor Rebecca Dorr and I interviewed Morris in March, we knew that this film would be big for him. He was still riding high off SOP‘s Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival, where he had ended up speaking to about 150 journalists over the course of 25 or so interviews. On the afternoon we spent with him, he was sending off a blog entry to the New York Times, telling us about a related story he co-wrote for the New Yorker, and even soliciting our opinions on two different, but equally provocative, SOP movie posters.

Since then he’s also been profiled by GQ and Wired, Q&A-ed by Entertainment Weekly, and this month the New York Times wrote about their famous online contributor four times in two weeks. Not bad for an eclectic documentarian from Cambridge.

Of course, the most recent of these Times articles reveals the downside of that publicity, when certain filmmaking operating procedures are brought to light. This piece highlights that Morris paid a fee to some of his interviewees, a huge journalistic no-no…but apparently not entirely so for documentary films.

There are two sides to this debate, as the article shows: Does payment affect whether people will talk and what they say? Or, if a filmmaker does not pay, is he or she merely exploiting interviewees who stand to gain little from a multimillion-dollar production? Won’t people who disagree with Morris’s film use this fact against him and his arguments?

Well, my admittedly opinionated and buck-passing view on all this hype and publicity and potential for controversy is — no surprise — people should see the film. It’s visceral and compelling, and anything but dry, and the questions it poses about the scandal will make viewers of any political persuasion think closely about the soldiers, the war, and photography in general.

It’s received fine reviews, including Time magazine critic Richard Corliss’ rave that Morris should be awarded the Medal of Freedom for this film. Okay, maybe that’s a bit much, but that sound bite will sure look good on a movie poster.


Errol Morris, in Five Takes [Boston, May, 2007]

PHOTO BY John Goodman for Boston magazine