"An Inconvenient Truth" Strikes a Nerve

Jonny Leahan June 2, 2006

Al Gore, the self-described "former next President of The United States," has been studying global warming for 40 years, and few people on the planet are as knowledgeable on the subject. Gore has spent the past several years traveling the world with his multimedia presentation on global warming, in an attempt to call attention to this urgent planetary crisis. Although he’s given the free lecture over a thousand times, a new film about the traveling road show promises to reach far more people than Gore could ever speak to on his own. Davis Guggenheim’s remarkable documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles last week, and will open in over a hundred (and counting) US cities, including San Francisco, throughout June — just in time for hurricane season.

The idea for the documentary was born when veteran producer Lawrence Bender ("Reservoir Dogs", "Good Will Hunting", "Kill Bill") saw Gore’s lecture and was so affected that he immediately began wondering what he could do to help. "Everyone I know who’s seen this presentation feels it’s like the curtains peel back and the light comes in," Bender told indieWIRE in a recent conversation. "Once you’ve seen this information you have to do something with it. Of course, since I’m a filmmaker, I really thought this has got to be a movie… and off we went. Of course I needed a director who had a great vision, and that was Davis Guggenheim. He’s the one who actually figured out how to make it cinematic and make it personal."

"An Inconvenient Truth" does manage to effectively balance educational information with compelling footage and even a bit of humor, keeping the viewer thoroughly engaged while offering what may be the most comprehensive explanation of global warming for the layperson that exists. "The idea of this movie is basically to educate people on global warming," says Bender, "and it is the first time that all the information is brought into one place. You know, you read about it in different magazines and newspapers and get it on TV, but this is the first time you’ve actually seen it all together… it’s breathtaking, you really feel like ‘Oh my God, I have to do something, because this is crazy what’s going on.’"

The sense of urgency is palpable as the film unfolds, and if the overwhelming majority of scientists are correct, there is about a decade left in which something must be done to stop the entire Earth’s climate system from spinning out of control. If pollution continues at this rate, the planet will soon experience floods, extreme weather, epidemics, droughts and deadly heat waves that far outweigh anything that has occurred in recorded history.

Bender and co-producer Laurie David ("Earth To America!") joined forces with Participant Productions (and later distributor Paramount Classics) to create a documentary that would inspire activism while appealing to mainstream audiences in an attempt to get the alarming message out to as many people as possible. Participant Productions seems to be on a roll when it comes to creating what could be termed "activist films," having recently released several issue-oriented movies with mainstream appeal, including "American Gun", which explores the proliferation of firearms in the US, "Syriana", a political thriller about the evils of Big Oil, and "Good Night and Good Luck", a timely portrait of Edward R. Murrow and his fearless battle against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s obsession with exposing alleged Communists.

Executive Producer Diane Weyermann, who joined Participant last October, has been instrumental in expanding the company’s focus on activist documentaries, and is currently developing a slate that will reflect the mission of the organization. Formerly the Director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, where she directed the Sundance Documentary Fund, a program supporting films that address current human rights, social justice, civil liberties, and freedom of expression issues, Weyermann is uniquely suited for the challenge at Participant.

"This media company is committed to financing compelling stories… as a way to enlighten audiences about critical social issues facing us today," Weyermann told indieWIRE via Blackberry from Cannes. "It’s a unique opportunity to work with amazing filmmakers on stories that can make a difference. I am convinced that there is great potential to bring documentaries into the larger marketplace and that people will turn out for them."

If the preliminary New York and Los Angeles opening numbers are any indication, Weyermann is correct. Over the four day holiday weekend, "An Inconvenient Truth" grossed $367,611 on just four screens, for a very impressive per screen average of $91,828, making it a strong contender for a breakout summer hit. Not everyone will be surprised at this level of success, however. "There is a real hunger for stories that deal with the complexities of our world," says Weyermann. "It’s always a challenge, but when the film is beautifully crafted and the story is powerfully rendered, people will come if given the opportunity. I truly believe that and I feel privileged to be with a company and work with partners who believe it, too."

Although it’s his first documentary, Bender also believes that there is a growing market for activist filmmaking of this sort. "It’s about people understanding what the issue is, and then there’s an organic evolution that motivates people to take action," he says. "That’s what’s happening with this movie. We’re kind of in a perfect storm… oil prices going up, droughts, downpours… The documentary has become a viable form of entertainment in the movie theaters, so I do believe that it is something that can be used now as a form of entertaining and at the same time educating and motivating people."

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in indieWIRE]