LOS ANGELES -- Starbucks Corp. was one of the companies that turned down interview requests from Nick and Mark Francis when the brothers were shooting their documentary about rampant poverty among Ethiopian coffee growers.
But after "Black Gold" attracted attention at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the coffee giant invited the British brothers to its Seattle headquarters as it prepared for a barrage of bad publicity.
"Black Gold" is the latest in a growing genre of documentary films shaking up the business world. They are taking critiques of corporate power that would once have been the province of newspapers and magazines to movie theaters and DVD shops, where they're finding an increasingly receptive audience.
The trend, which started with "Roger and Me" in 1989 and more recently featured "Super Size Me," is forcing some corporate targets to counterattack -- and, some say, even change business practices -- to dodge claims of unfair wages, unhealthy products, or environmental degradation.
"When you're talking about a documentary, it's something that's being presented as if it's fact, so that's a huge problem for companies," said Paul A. Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth University.
Michael Moore's "Roger and Me" left a lasting blemish on General Motors Corp. for closing its Flint, Mich., plant and leaving rampant unemployment in its wake. Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary "Super Size Me" assailed McDonald's high-calorie meals.
Jon Else, who teaches filmmaking at the University of California at Berkeley, said the interest in corporate-critical documentaries is a reaction to the extremes of an untamed free market.
Nick Francis said "Black Gold" stemmed from the brothers' outrage about the poverty that persists among Ethiopian growers even as multinational coffee sellers make huge profits.
The brothers put the final cost of the movie at $760,000 and said its financing was typical for films of the genre, relying on grants, small donations, and pro bono production help. This year's "Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers," from director Robert Greenwald, was bankrolled by thousands of individual donors.
Despite the relatively small budgets, many of the films have drawn big attention. Starbucks sent an e-mail to employees in the United Kingdom characterizing "Black Gold" as "inaccurate and incomplete" before it played at the London Film Festival. At Sundance, the company distributed a statement saying it believes "coffee farmers should make a living wage and be paid fair prices."
Nick Francis believes "Black Gold" also helped prompt an upcoming meeting between the chief executive of Starbucks and the Ethiopian prime minister. Starbucks spokeswoman Audrey Lincoff said the film and the meeting were unrelated.
Else said the filmmakers are akin to the rabble-rousing reporters who took on the railroad empires and mining giants of the early 20th century. "These guys are doing what any good crusading journalist would have done in a time when everyone was reading the newspaper," he said.