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50 Million Videos Viewed: A Huge Marker for Brave New Films and Robert Greenwald

Brave New Films has mastered every element of alternative distribution, from YouTube, to Facebook to Twitter, creating a new model for activist political video.
 
 
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The Internet has changed the world in many ways, and none more obvious than the creation of the short political video, a diverse range of edgy polemics, funny satires and earnest calls for change, that get spread around the Web rapid-fire via social marketing and occupy heavy-duty view time and space on YouTube. This online video cornucopia is a relatively new phenomenon, which ironically has its origins in the shadow of Hollywood -- in Culver City, directly across from the giant Sony movie lot.
 
The innovator and now king of progressive persuasion video is Brave New Films and its visionary helmsman Robert Greenwald, who segued from a career in Hollywood to position himself as the go-to-guy with political video, with a huge presence on the Internet. 
 
When AlterNet did its reader poll of the most influential progressives last year, some of the readers' picks, such as Bill Moyers, Michael Moore and Amy Goodman, were obvious and expected. In a sense there were only three newcomers (people who have made their mark in the past 10 years) in the top echelon --  Rachel Maddow, Arianna Huffington, and the biggest surprise, Robert Greenwald.  In the past decade, Greenwald has carved out an important niche, and in effect he is the first primarily Internet-based progressive star to break through.
 
The biggest message from Greenwald's success is, screw the gatekeepers. Brave New Films doesn't need to work through those in control of the networks, cable, satellite, and movie studios, to reach large audiences with high-quality material with a message, and to motivate them. That has been the mark of their success.
 
This week, Greenwald and his crack team at BNF passes a huge milestone. Fifty million of their videos have been watched, which in many cases amped up debate, raised consciousness, and produced some of the change we have been waiting for -- although as Greenwald would be the first to admit, there is a lot more work to do. "Brave New Films is unique in that we create video based on campaigns to move people to action. With major focus on distribution and press and political partners, we are proudly activist media: Fact-based, objective, and moving people to take action, to educate, to look at an issue differently," is how Greenwald explains it.
 
Brave New Films started with full-length films, via alternative distribution -- very popular in-your-face documentaries like OutFoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, WalMart: The High Cost of Low Price and Iraq For Sale. All were accompanied by full-fledged campaigns and a range of progressive partners like MoveOn who helped galvanize attention and build momentum. It was almost by accident that BNF migrated to short-form video.
 
Says Greenwald, "We had just finished Iraq for Sale, and took one section of the film and posted it on this new thing called YouTube. We got thousands of views! I was hooked. And it was clear we were reaching a much more varied audience then the people buying DVDs or coming to house parties. At that time, there was no proof that serious politics would have a place on YouTube. In fact we were looked at like we were somewhat nuts for moving from our very successful model of full-length films and house parties, to short-form video, which at the time was mainly about cats playing piano and naked women in the shower falling down. But it was a huge opportunity to be seized upon. And the speed and immediacy of the short form was very appealing in a fast-changing world."
 
On the Internet, that fast-paced world is always changing. Today, YouTube seems like an old friend when compared to the newer players like Facebook and Twitter. Brave New Films has harnessed the Internet with a dizzying array of strategies, as sophisticated as anything in the progressive online universe, a great model for smart adaptation that has marked BNF's success. Greenwald explains: "Social networking is very, very important. It is no longer an issue of potential eyeballs (the old-fashioned way of yelling at people) but rather it is much more about 'permission marketing,' which we learned from the writer and thinker Seth Godin. A video forwarded to you from a friend on Facebook is way, way more full of impact than a TV commercial you can mute, or run out of the room, or TiVo and fast forward. Commercial marketers have embraced this. Politics is lagging behind. But we are pushing it hard."
 
I asked Greenwald how important YouTube is in its success. He says, "YouTube is a distribution channel. Brave New Films has focused on as many distribution channels as possible. With my background in commercial film and TV I am obsessed with reaching an audience; otherwise, why do it? So we distribute on YouTube, on Web sites; now we are committed to Facebook (our latest effort, Cuentame, is the largest Latino page on Facebook) and to cable access and to blogs, etc. If there is distribution channel, we are pursuing it."
 
Greenwald is also known for being principled in terms of his political values. In a world where funding is crucial and a lot of the big bucks come from people who have political agendas and are sometimes more pragmatic than principled, that can be a problem.
 
Greenwald says, "Our work on Afghanistan caused some significant funders to withdraw their support and it hurt us significantly. At the same time our work on Afghanistan is the most important we have done. We spoke out loud and clearly and early. The Afghan war was a mistake, and continues to be one under Obama. But we worked long and hard to find ways to talk about the war that did not say 'Obama was Bush,' that did not fall into robot-like response, and tried to be as strategic as possible in laying out the arguments against this disaster. And strikingly, we have seen more people move positions on this issue then on any other we have worked on. We have seen tremendous change in folks on our list in the last year, from supporting the war to strong opposition to the war. And we have almost 50,000 people on Facebook working hard with our key organizer Derrick Crowe to build opposition and actions."
 
Since it's all about working for social change (Brave New Films is famous for its motto, "Psssst. Do Something"), Greenwald's operation, like many other activist efforts, faces new challenges every day. Increasingly when people are getting cynical about "clicktivism" -- a kind of activism-lite, where people think they have done enough by signing an Internet petition -- it is important to go further and deeper. Greenwald says, "In a world of multi-inputs, and major pulls on people's time and energy it is harder then ever to get people to act. Brave New Films works at touching the heart first, which then leads to the mind. We focus on personal stories of humans who are affected --- be it by insurance company greed, or civilian casualties in Afghanistan, or exposing the racism of the Tea Party, we always work to start with personal/human and then lead to larger policy issues."
 
With so much happening and the path to change strewn with obstacles, how do we choose where to focus, and how to galvanize the effort? Greenwald agrees that there are no easy paths: "Embarking on a campaign with the potential for success gets more and more complicated in a world with so many issues, and very limited resources. We evaluate from these points of view: Can we make a difference? What narrative is not being told -- can we move the frame? Are there active partners to amplify the message and the campaign? Are there partners with ground expertise we can work with? With our current work in the California election with the RealCarly effort we have worked with some key California unions who are very concerned that Republican senate candidate Carly Fiorina is anti-union. It has been very effective, as has the 'Carly no Es Mi Amiga' campaign."
 
As Brave New Films looks to the future, Greenwald feels they are still in the early stages of the potential for using short video for social change. They have built a state-of-the-art studio on Culver Boulevard, which is a hub for first-class interviews and its Brave New Conversations project, while making its use available for partners in the progressive world.
 
One of the key element of Brave New Films' success is its openness to working with others. As Greenwald says, "Collaboration is in our DNA. From the very first film to the latest video, our job is always to work with partners on every single issue. It is not always an easy road, and like all relationships has its challenges, but with time things have gotten better and better."
 
Well, we all hope things are getting better, and the impact is increasing. With the Tea Party and the radical conservatives revving up their engines, and the Obama administration having its challenges, the struggle for social change is clearly in bumpy terrain. But if there is any organization with the vision and the commitment, as well as the track record of success, to be among the leaders building the campaigns, it is Brave New Films. Fifty million videos viewed is nothing to sneeze at.
 
Editor's Note: AlterNet, like many progressive media and advocacy institutions, has collaborated with Brave New Films in helping market and distribute its content. So we have direct knowledge of what it is like to work with BNF. Also, Robert Greenwald is officially a member of the board of AlterNet's parent organization, the Independent Media Institute (even if he is always too busy to come to the meetings).

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

 
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