See New Movies By Adam McKay, Catherine Hardwicke and More For Free in a Theater This Month

By  · Published on October 8th, 2014

Vulvan Productions

Going to the movies is expensive, and in this economy there’s less incentive than usual to make it to the multiplex just for a couple hours of entertainment, especially when so much of it is just reruns on the big screen (another Dracula, seriously?) – never mind all the other complaints you all have about the theatrical experience. The movies should be seen as a getaway from our troubles, just as they were for much of the Great Depression, but this time around we have so many other options to keep us distracted.

Well, what if there was a movie playing in theaters for free? Yeah, you’ll still have to pay for a babysitter, gas, parking and concessions, if those things apply, but the main event costs you nothing on October 20th when you go out to see a bunch of new movies by Adam McKay (Anchorman), Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight), Jon M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation), Steve James (Hoop Dreams), Albert Hughes (Menace II Society), Mary Harron (American Psycho), actor Bob Balaban and Entourage star Adrien Grenier. There are also directorial debuts from James Schamus (producer of Brokeback Mountain) and Chris Henchy (writer of The Campaign).

These and 10 more are compiled as a feature called We the Economy: 20 Short Films You Can’t Afford to Miss. Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen are behind the project, which consists of nonfiction works, including comedic and animated sketches, designed to answer questions about money and finance and the U.S. economy in clever ways that make the subject matter accessible to most Americans. Ten economic advisors are also involved (including NPR’s Adam Davidson), as are the onscreen talents of Werner Herzog, Patton Oswalt, Mo Collins, Judah Friedlander, Susie Essman, Adam Goldberg, Tony Hale, Michael Gladis, Lili Taylor and (the voices of) Sarah Silverman, Maya Rudolph, Andy Richter, Billy Eichner and Amy Poehler.

According to Variety, Spurlock convinced Landmark Theatres (via CEO and President Ted Mundorff) to let the series play for no cost for just the one night, which is the eve of its debut on digital/VOD platforms, all of which will also offer We the Economy for free. That’s not just a single screen on a theater in New York City, either. The event will be hosted by 20 cinemas in 20 cities. Maybe Mundorff is hoping everyone will stop to get some popcorn on the way in, especially since such an unreasonably pricey purchase would be made before the patrons are likely made wiser about spending during the show.

What’s in it for the filmmakers and actors who worked on the project? Did Spurlock sell tons of space for product placement so that We the Economy will seem like a sequel to his doc The Greatest Movie Ever Sold? Nope, they’ve all reportedly been paid by Allen, whose Vulcan Productions financed the whole thing. Spurlock also just wants to inform people. He told Variety that while there’s no return on investment for something like this, “the bigger win will be the R.O.E., the return on education.”

Ah, but there is that old economics standard that you get what you pay for. So, will anyone show up without thinking there’s some other catch? Fortunately, free movies are something that most people can still get behind, as any of us who attend weekly all-access press screenings (filled mostly with audience members who got their passes through a radio station or website or handout) can confirm. It may not even matter that the 20 films here are all educational, since it helps that recognizable stars are in them.

The people who might not benefit from how We the Economy is trying to reach audiences is the advocacy documentary community – that is, the makers of issue films. A lot of docs aimed at informing, educating, exposing, propagandizing, etc., are able to sell tickets and make money through traditional rental platforms in spite of the fact that they’re primarily feature-length ads for a cause or even a specific organization. I’ve long been critical of those films for charging admission for what they do (see my review of Fed Up, for instance), so I’d love to see We the Economy challenge that area of documentary by giving audiences a reason to believe that these films ought to be free.

That is, of course, an interesting potential effect of this considering all the major documentary voices who directed installments of the series, including Jessica Yu (Last Call at the Oasis), Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), Lee Hirsch (Bully), Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost trilogy), Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.), Marshall Curry (If a Tree Falls), Jehane Noujaim (The Square), Miao Wang (Beijing Taxi), Shola Lynch (Free Angela and All Political Prisoners) and Spurlock himself. None of these filmmakers, however, are the sorts of hacks who make docs that are only issue films without any other redeeming cinematic value.

They’re actually the ones worthy of profit, so getting them for nothing through this venue is an incredible bargain for us moviegoers. Never mind the idea that these are films we can’t afford to miss, for the free learning. These are films we shouldn’t miss anyway, for all that free filmmaking talent.

Watch the trailer for We the Economy below and check out the project’s website for more, including ticket info.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.