One of the documentary highlights of the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin was Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, telling the inside story of how top executives of America's seventh-largest company walked away with over $1 billion in the late 1990s through 2001 while investors and employers lost nearly everything when the company crashed.
Based on the book, The Smartest Guys in the Room, by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, the documentary film was written and directed by Alex Gibney and features insider accounts, with incendiary corporate video and audiotapes, including Enron traders discussing -- even boasting -- how they were wringing hundreds of millions of dollars in profits out of California's energy crisis, which they had largely engineered by manipulating energy supplies, in 2000 and 2001.
Gibney said he was fascinated by the degree to which executives at Enron "were like filmmakers working on a science fiction movie: They just made things up." And virtually everyone -- journalists, stock analysts, business school professors, even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan -- believed the Enron story.
The movie's $700,000 budget was bankrolled by Mark Cuban's HDNet Films, which finances movies for up to $2 million, as long as they are shot in high-definition format so they can be shown on Cuban's HD cable channel. He also owns Magnolia Pictures, which is releasing the film theatrically.
The film explores the ties between Enron executives and both Bush administrations. Asked in an interview if he let Bill Clinton off the hook, Gibney replied, "there's no question that a lot of what went on with Enron happened during the Clinton administration, but the worst fraud happened very late in the game," with regulators asleep at the switch. He added, "I do think that the Bush administration particularly shared with [Enron CEO] Ken Lay not only a close relationship but also a perspective on deregulation that was very important and was almost an ideological zeal with them, and I think that's what bonded them -- that government was not the solution, it was the problem."
McLean, who worked at the Goldman Sachs investment firm for three years after she got out of college, said Wall Street firms typically keep their traders under tight wraps. "At Enron the traders ran the show," she said.
Asked how much Michael Moore's success with Fahrenheit 911 boosted documentarians, Gibney gave Moore a lot of credit. "Four years ago it never seemed possible that people would go to theaters to see documentaries. ... And now people go on a regular basis to see them and it's not just Michael Moore, when you think about it. There's Supersize Me, The Control Room, Fog of War, Spellbound, Trials of Henry Kissinger [which Gibney produced], people go out to see them and I think it happens for a couple reasons." He said the aggressive investigative approach of documentaries like his fill a role that TV news has largely given up. "I think also, ironically, though, documentaries have benefited from reality shows on TV. Even something like Survivor, people have gotten used to seeing shows without actors, with real people, so they're able to go into a documentary thinking, 'Well, this could be entertaining.'"
Now Hollywood studios are sending people to film festivals to look for documentaries to buy, because they're making money. "That's the revenge of the system -- that now the documentaries -- aggressive, tough-minded documentaries -- are successful now because they make money," Gibney said. "So that would be the final revenge if the Enron documentary made a lot of money."
South By Southwest has a reputation as a forum for documentaries and independent films, with more than 150 titles screened. Other documentaries to look for include: Our Brand is Crisis, a behind-the-scenes look at US political consultants (including James Carville) running the comeback election campaign of a former Bolivian president; Be Here to Love Me, a heartbreaking profile of the late songwriter Townes Van Zandt; and Press On, focusing on pedal steel guitar phenomenon Robert Randolph and the Family Band from their beginnings in the Pentecostal "sacred steel guitar" sound of their local church to their breakthrough in popular music.
For more information on these and other films see www.sxsw.com.
See an extended interview with Gibney, McLean and Elkind at http://www.hybridmagazine.com/sxsw05/film/enron-interview.shtml/.