The concept of the celebrity as franchise is nothing new. Pop icons from Frank Sinatra to Martha Stewart have leveraged their initial, narrowly defined, successes into larger careers and even business empires (for example, homemaker Stewart or actor-turned-food-hawker Paul Newman).
Moore's case is a bit different, for several reasons. For one, socio-political issues are at the heart of his work. While entertainers have certainly gone political before—former actor and eventual US president Ronald Reagan being the most overt example (and the celebrity with a pet cause is a cliché)—the complete blending of politics and entertainment is far less common. The closest thing we've seen is the slew of predominantly conservative talk show hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, who've similarly parleyed their radio success into sales at the bookstore and, to lesser degrees, television ratings. But Limbaugh and Hannity are political pundits first, and entertainers second. The guy who spends twenty dollars to take his girlfriend to a Friday night showing of “Fahrenheit 9/11” is actively seeking out an entertainment experience far more than the guy who, stuck in traffic on the way home from work, tunes into Sean Hannity’s show.
Another unusual aspect of Moore's success is that he himself defies definition. Is he a filmmaker? An actor? A comedian? A political agitator? The simple fact remains that, at the center of all of Moore's body of work lies Moore himself. Indeed, the most humorous and memorable moments in Moore's films generally feature him pulling some cunningly mischievous stunt in an attempt to both make his point and entertain his audience—think of his efforts at convincing Kmart to stop selling ammunition in “Bowling for Columbine” (2002), or his attempt to sign up the children of congressional members for military service in “Fahrenheit.” Even when Moore is not on screen, it's his voiceover, delivered in deadpan monotone, which generally provides direction.
Finally, there is the fact that while most celebrities have cultivated an image of beauty, strength, and glamour, Moore remains deliberately on the side of the anti-hero. Although by now a millionaire, Moore is rarely to be seen wearing anything that looks like it wasn't purchased at a Wal-Mart. Even when he donned a tuxedo to accept an Oscar for “Bowling,” he looked well lived in with a lopsided bowtie and five o'clock shadow. And then of course there's the ever-present baseball cap. Throw in a beer gut and pasty skin, and the perpetually disheveled Moore looks like the walking stereotype of one of the blue-collar Midwestern workers who peopled his first few works.
Although Moore's roots in that same blue-collar community are real enough, the filmmaker has obviously worked hard to play up his image as the Joe-average underdog taking on the big and powerful interests of the world. Aside from his personal appearance, Moore mentions his hometown of Flint, Michigan, (a town that starred in “Roger and Me,” 1989) at least once in each of his films. His website has the feel of a blog, and features content written in a colloquial tone although he could undoubtedly afford a slicker setup.
Regardless of what one thinks of Moore and his politics, it has to be admitted that all this is good marketing. It makes him appealing to the socially conservative blue collar workers who used to form the base of the US Democratic party and who, for the last few decades, have increasingly been voting Republican (the so-called “Reagan Democrats”). It lends him legitimacy in the eyes of the young liberal urbanites who have been flocking to his films for years. And it insulates him somewhat from the charge, used so often and so effectively by conservatives since the Nixon era, of liberal elitism. Try as one might, there is simply no way to conjure an image of Moore as the out-of-touch, ivy-tower liberal of yesteryear. Like any good franchise, Moore understands the importance of his brand image.
Moore's career is almost a textbook example of leveraging synergies, as all good franchises do. His debut film, “Roger and Me” (1989), made him famous. From there, he went on to host the television series “TV Nation” (1994-1995), then to write his first book, Downsize This! in 1996. Moore dragged a camera crew along with him during the publicity tour for that book, and used the resulting footage to make 1997's “The Big One,” a move that imitated in perfect microcosm the media conglomerate habit of making films from successful publishings and vice-versa. His bestselling book Stupid White Men was released in the spring of 2002 (after being delayed by its publisher in the wake of the September 11th attacks), and was quickly followed several months later by “Bowling for Columbine,” his most successful film up to that date. Less than a year later, Moore capitalized on this latest round of success by publishing Dude, Where's My Country? Recently he released “Fahrenheit 9/11,” combining the momentum of his previous works, his name and reputation, and a healthy dose of controversy to propel the film to the top of the box office in its opening weekend, something that no other documentary has ever done.
In the wake of this mainstream success, many are predicting that the face of politics will be permanently changed: "...We may come to look back on [“Fahrenheit 9/11”’s] hugely successful first week the way we now think of the televised presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, as a moment when we grasped for the first time the potential of a mass medium—in this case, movies—to affect American politics in new ways," writes Richard Corliss in his cover piece for Time magazine (4 July 2004).
It’s too early to know if that statement will turn out to be true. So too whether Michael Moore's career is at its zenith, or if he still has bigger things ahead of him. But come what may, Moore's career to date has proven beyond doubt that, even for the most unlikely of celebrities, a consciousness of branding and marketing synergy can go an awfully long way.