Diet Drug Maker Glaxo to Pay for a Film on Eating

Brooks Barnes|The New York Times

GlaxoSmithKline is getting into the movie business, pursuing an unusual and most likely controversial strategy to increase interest in a weight-loss drug.

Glaxo , the pharmaceutical giant behind Alli, an over-the-counter weight-loss product, has decided that a good way to educate Americans about obesity — and increase sales of Alli — is to finance a “hard-hitting” documentary about eating.

Although a budget has not been set, an Academy Award-winning director will be named on Jan. 25 at the Sundance Film Festival, a spokesman for Glaxo said.

To lend credibility to the project, Glaxo sought out a partner: the Creative Coalition, a nonprofit social and political advocacy organization backed by prominent entertainers like Alec Baldwin, Tim Daly and Susan Sarandon. The organization has decided to produce the film with Glaxo, aiming to deliver a finished picture this year. Although theatrical distribution is a goal, distribution plans are incomplete.

“This won’t be a marketing tool at all,” said Robin Bronk, the Creative Coalition’s executive director, adding that working with Glaxo on the project is “a natural progression of our mission to develop educational projects.”

The organization has a track record. Showtime bought its most recent documentary, “PoliWood,” a look at politically active actors during the 2008 Republican and Democratic conventions that was directed by Barry Levinson, who made “Rain Man.” Ms. Bronk and Rachel Ferdinando, a Glaxo marketing executive, said there would be a signed agreement giving full creative control to the director and the Creative Coalition team. Ms. Ferdinando said Glaxo had no expectations that Alli, which blocks some fat from being absorbed into the body and can result in unpredictable flatulence and diarrhea, would be mentioned in the documentary.

“The filmmakers can make a decision about whether Alli is important,” she said. “We want it to be entirely transparent; we want it to have integrity. It’s a fantastic outcome if people are simply more educated.”

Even so, Glaxo’s financial backing is sure to raise eyebrows. While corporations back films all the time, it is rare for one to pay for a documentary with direct hopes that it will translate into bigger profits. As a rule, documentary makers are an aggressively anticorporate crowd.

“I’m skeptical that this won’t be an infomercial disguised as an independent documentary,” said Theodore Braun, the director of the 2007 film “Darfur Now” and an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “I can’t imagine that a company as legally and rhetorically sophisticated as GlaxoSmithKline is going to leave its interests unprotected.”

Other analysts of the documentary art form said that the film project should not be judged too hastily.

“Because we are in this era of strategic social media, we can’t think of this in that old way we used to,” said Pat Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media at American University. “If Glaxo signs an agreement saying that we will pay for it but we won’t look at a rough cut, then I think you have a case where this effort could have some real value.”

Neither Glaxo or the Creative Coalition would discuss a budget for the film, saying that would depend on negotiations with the director, among other factors. Ms. Ferdinando said Glaxo was investing “substantial resources” in the film and that the budget was “expected to be consistent with other documentary projects of a similar nature.”

The partners say they hope to emulate “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s celebrated 2006 documentary on climate change. It cost an estimated $1.5 million to produce and sold $50 million in tickets worldwide. Ms. Ferdinando summarized the film as “the ‘Inconvenient Truth’ of mindless eating,” with the story taking a “behind-closed-doors, fly-on-the-wall” approach that highlights unhealthy relationships people have with food.

“This represents a new initiative for us as a company, to take a serious issue and make it more understandable to people,” Ms. Ferdinando said.

As part of the partnership, the Creative Coalition will organize a panel discussion at Sundance to promote Glaxo’s recent study findings about eating habits and talk about ways for the entertainment industry to get more involved in reducing obesity. Panelists will include Jeff Garlin of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Ricki Lake and Emme, the plus-size model.

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