Tim Robbins won a best supporting actor Oscar last year for his performance in “Mystic River,” and he’s in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “War of the Worlds.”
Mainstream success, however, hasn’t dulled his political instincts. His fabled activism is center stage in the new DVD of his critically panned but publicly embraced 2003 stage production, “Embedded,” a piece about the origins of the war in Iraq, the human toll of the conflict and what Robbins sees as the media’s complicity in the venture.
Online rental pioneer Netflix was the sole entity willing to distribute the controversial project: On May 31, the company will offer the DVD “Embedded Live” to its more than 3 million subscribers before a late summer delivery to venues such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. Though the firm has purchased movies for the last 1 1/2 years, this is the first time it is distributing an acquisition to a broad audience outside its customer base.
According to Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, Robbins’ film is the kind they seek out: quality movies that are “marketing challenged” and often fall through the cracks in mainstream Hollywood. Previous acquisitions include the Oscar-winning documentary “Born Into Brothels” and Eve Ensler’s “Until the Violence Stops,” a look at the global effect of her “Vagina Monologues.” Controversy is less of a hurdle for Netflix, he says, because there’s plenty of room for a diversity of voices in their 40,000-title library.
“Consolidation of media outlets results in more homogenized offerings,” Sarandos said. “And the square footage and limited shelf space of mainline retailers is so valuable that they’re managed closely -- stocked with mass-appeal product that squeezes out films like Tim’s. We’re not espousing a political position but providing a platform.”
Failing to interest Hollywood entities such as HBO, Showtime, Miramax Films and IFC Films, Robbins financed the bulk of the $500,000 project himself. (Bob Boyett, a producer of the play, forked out $150,000.) Filming during the last four days of the New York run was a seat-of-the-pants affair. It was shot with nine cameras and a mobile bus/control room belonging to the Downtown Community Television Center, a New York-based company that teaches filmmaking to economically disadvantaged students.
“The film played at the Berlin and Venice film festivals last year, but the goal was never a theatrical run,” Robbins said by phone from New York. “We were aiming for DVDs and television, where it’s airing on the Sundance Channel in August. I didn’t even try the networks. We’re working this the opposite of the normal Hollywood paradigm, starting with an exclusive rental and expanding from there. It’s uncharted territory.”
Theater and movies are an important outlet, Robbins said, because post-9/11, “people are increasingly muzzled. There’s a scary intimidation factor, serious disregard for freedom of the press.”
A series of skits punctuated by music from artists such as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, “Embedded Live” features a chorus of masked caricatures (including Rum Rum, Gondola and Woof) whose resemblance to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz is hard to miss. As they go about planning the “shock and awe” campaign, the group (“The Office of Special Plans”) refers to their personal organizers as though scheduling a power lunch.
U.S. soldiers, portrayed in a sympathetic light, voice dismay at what they regard as the sanitized version of reality disseminated by the media back home. And, in an allusion to the government policy of “embedding” journalists whose lives are in the hands of the troops they cover, one reporter asks another: “Do you ever feel like a publicist?” Robbins, the writer-director, wears a third hat, as well, acting in the production.
The contrast between stories played up by the British press and those disseminated by their American counterparts was an incentive to write “Embedded,” Robbins said. But two incidents clinched it. In the wake of antiwar comments, Robbins was disinvited from an appearance at a 15th anniversary celebration of the movie “Bull Durham” held by the Baseball Hall of Fame -- an event that was later canceled. And two weeks earlier, the United Way canceled a speech by his longtime mate, the equally political Susan Sarandon.
Performed by Robbins’ Actors’ Gang theater, “Embedded” opened to mixed reviews on the West Coast and was skewered in New York. No surprise, the actor said. For starters, he explained, the Eastern establishment has an aversion to anything that comes from Los Angeles -- and critics rarely take to what he labels “rude, boisterous, punk rock theater.” The 90-minute play, nevertheless packed the houses in its Los Angeles, New York and London runs, as well on a national tour. The turnout, the director said, reflects the public’s desire for “truth.”
“Was the play great? I have no idea,” Robbins said. “But the experience was electric and important to audiences, and I wanted to document that moment. I knew this wouldn’t be a slam dunk, but fortunately the landscape is shifting. Netflix, with its sophisticated database, is an important piece of the puzzle. They’re using existing technology to become the clerk at your local video store saying ‘check this out.’ ”
Unlike retailers such as Amazon.com, Netflix not only tracks a subscriber’s purchases but also his or her reaction to material. (Someone may dislike action films in general, Sarandos explains, but embrace Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies.) The company issues recommendations, a powerful marketing tool that allows off-center material to compete with its bigger-budget counterparts. Subscribers can also communicate with one another, passing along personal tips.
Because projects such as his depend on the Internet and word of mouth, Robbins said, he’ll approach a variety of organizations to engender grass-roots support. He’ll also try to work in a mention of “Embedded Live” during promotional appearances for “War of the Worlds,” in which he plays Ogilvy, a fellow who gives shelter to characters played by Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. The DVD, which will sell for $19.99 on www.embedded.com beginning May 31, will have no bonus features.
Though Hollywood hasn’t jumped on his bandwagon, Robbins is understanding.
“I have faith in the system and I work in it,” he said. “I’m not the person who will decry it. No matter what the right wing says, Hollywood is run on profit, not politics -- like any business. It’s too simplistic a world view to say that Hollywood does anything in lock step. At the same time, I’m aware that certain product is more suitable for alternative delivery systems and I’m trying to tap into that.”
Last week, Netflix took over Walmart.com, the Internet division of the massive retail outlet that, by studio estimates, accounts for 40% of home entertainment sales, Sarandos said. And while Wal-Mart stores are unlikely to carry “Embedded Live,” he said, the DVD may yet surface in its online service.
“The audience for small films is there -- but fragmented,” Sarandos said. “Because we have a national footprint, we can service every community in the U.S.... We’re beloved by customers for bringing movies to people who can’t afford to go to the Sundance Film Festival -- as well as by filmmakers for giving a voice to those on the fringe.”