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The Cricket: Celebrities cash in fame by backing documentaries

Published March 7, 2013 3:07 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When one becomes rich and famous, one of the first questions that comes up is: What will I do with my fame?

After the first reflex of spending some of that cash — a flashy new car, or a house for your long-suffering mom — the next step often is to find a cause, such as a charity or activist movement, that can use the voice of somebody who has microphones recording his or her every utterance anyway.

For ages, the standard scenario went like this: Celebrity hooks up with a group (or forms a foundation) dedicated to a particular cause, appears at a fundraiser to pump rich friends for money, appears at a charity event that brings publicity, maybe even shoots a public-service announcement or testifies before a congressional committee.

In today's media-saturated times, there's a new tool that celebrities are employing to get their message out: the commissioned documentary.

Opening in Salt Lake City-area theaters today are three documentaries, each of them boasting big-name talent among their producing team.

• Amy Berg's "West of Memphis" examines the murders of three boys in an Arkansas town and the imprisonment of three young men wrongfully accused of the crime. It is backed by filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, the Oscar-winning makers of "The Lord of the Rings."

• Craig Scott Rosebraugh's "Greedy Lying Bastards" is an exposé of climate-change deniers and their oil-industry backers. Actor and environmental activist Daryl Hannah is an executive producer.

• Ramona S. Diaz's "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey," chronicles how a Manila cover-band singer was chosen to lead the U.S. rock band Journey. One of the producers is the band's manager, John Baruck.

They're not the only ones. At this year's Sundance Film Festival, Oprah Winfrey gave her support to "Running From Crazy," director Barbara Kopple's profile of Mariel Hemingway and her efforts to understand her family's history of mental illness. At Sundance last year, Danny Glover was an executive producer on "The House I Live In," an exposé of the War on Drugs — while "A Place at the Table" (still playing at the Broadway this week) examined hunger in America with a boost from executive producer Tom Colicchio, the restaurateur and "Top Chef" judge.

What the celebrities get out of their documentaries varies.

With "Don't Stop Believin'," the gain is in controlling the message and creating an extended fan experience for the Journey faithful. For Hannah and "Greedy Lying Bastards," it's signing on to a film that will reach like-minded (in this case, liberal) viewers with a strong political message.

"West of Memphis" is an example of people putting their money and their fame toward a thankless crusade: freeing three men, convicted of three heinous murders, from prison. Jackson and Walsh didn't just support Berg's movie financially. They paid for the private investigator and FBI profiler who re-examined the West Memphis 3 case — helping to unearth new evidence that led to the trio's release from prison 18 years after the crime. Even though Jackson does appear as one of Berg's interview subjects, there's not much glory for supporting a battle against the U.S. criminal justice system.

"A Place at the Table" (which screened at Sundance '12 under the not-helpful title "Finding North") is a more typical example of how a documentary works in a bigger media picture. The movie acts as an introduction, setting out the issues, marshaling the experts and telling the story of real Americans dealing with the problem. It's part of a wide-ranging campaign that includes a companion book, educational outreach, calls to action and a website to tie it all together.

The movie's release plays into the plan, as it provides a hook to get celebrities on the talk-show circuit to promote the movie and sneak an activist message under the show bookers' anti-controversy radar.

Then there's the star-studded premiere, where the celebrity can answer red-carpet questions that carry more impact than "Who are you wearing?"

It's possible that a documentary will fizzle with viewers and raise the celebrity's ego more than awareness for the issue at hand. But when done right — as "West of Memphis," "A Place at the Table" and "Greedy Lying Bastards" do — a documentary will shine a light on an important issue, and the light reflected back on the celebrity's image will be just a by-product.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form, at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Maines' solo debut set for May release

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