Business

Documentaries battle for market share

Market Basket workers at a protest in Andover in August 2014.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File

Market Basket workers at a protest in Andover in August 2014.

On the day the Market Basket employees walked off the job, filmmaker Jay Childs shot footage of the long row of local and national television news cameras on hand. He was, he said, the only filmmaker on the scene.

“I was actually a little surprised that, other than the TV crews, a story of this magnitude hadn’t attracted other filmmakers,” he recalls.

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But it wouldn’t be long before he had the competition he’d expected. The Market Basket boycott of 2014 was a textbook example of controlling the narrative — how one side in a dispute can emerge the victor in the court of public opinion. Now Childs was facing his own competition for control of the narrative.

Nearly two years after the clash between cousins Arthur T. Demoulas and Arthur S. Demoulas first drew national attention, two film companies are scrambling to release competing documentaries on the subject. Childs and his team debuted “Food Fight: Inside the Battle for Market Basket,” in a pair of hometown screenings at the Music Hall in Portsmouth in February. Its scheduled for an official debut at the Boston International Film Festival on April 15 and 16.

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Meanwhile, the competing film, “We the People: The Market Basket Effect,” by a New York-based group, will be released in theaters in April. It debuted in September at the Boston Film Festival, and featured a special screening in November at the Center for American Progress in Washington D.C., with remarks by Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Both groups saw the Demoulas feud as inherently cinematic, with a fractured family fighting over a $4 billion, 75-store regional chain that’s beloved as a community fixture. When “Artie T.,” as he was known throughout the company, was pushed out, employees and customers demanded his reinstatement. He was, they said, an old-school boss who keeps prices low, takes care of his staff, and never forgets a face. Appearance-wise, Arthur S.’s corporate look didn’t contrast well.

The truth of the Market Basket saga is more complicated. In the 1990s Artie T. and his father, Telemachus “Mike” Demoulas, lost multiple lawsuits to Arthur S. and his siblings, who claimed they were defrauded of their shares after the death of their own father, Mike’s brother, George Demoulas.

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“There are no angels” in the Market Basket story, said Childs, who directed “Food Fight” and co-produced the film with Tom Bennett and Melissa Paly. Bennett was editor and writer. Childs said he began shooting footage for a potential documentary on the Demoulas family in 2013. When Arthur S. Demoulas built the coalition that forced out his cousin in June 2014, the filmmaker was poised to own the story.

But within days of the walkout, another camera team had arrived. Acting on a tip from a family friend, media entrepreneur Nick Buzzell raced from his office in Manhattan to the Market Basket in Seabrook, N.H., where a protest was taking place. He then called Bobby Friedman, a longtime entertainment industry executive with stints at MTV and AOL.

At first Friedman was skeptical. “Nothing could be less sexy to me than a supermarket,” he recalled with a laugh.

To Friedman, the story seemed limited to regional appeal. Eventually he became convinced the Market Basket dispute could be a “marquee project.” He signed on as a producer, and enlisted his friend, Ted Leonsis, owner of Washington D.C.’s NBA and NHL franchises and a former senior executive with AOL.

Like the Demoulas clan, Leonsis is a product of Lowell’s Greek-American community. In fact, he’d worked as a bag boy at a Market Basket as a teenager.

Few retail chains have inspired the fierce loyalty Market Basket has earned. Buzzell’s team would eventually land the actor Michael Chiklis (“The Shield”) as narrator. Chiklis, also a Lowell native, had a great-grandfather who worked as a butcher for Athanasios “Arthur” Demoulas — the company’s founder and grandfather to the warring cousins.

Buzzell quickly tired of being pegged as the outsider. His father, Mike, who helps run NBTV, was once a magician-comedian who shared stages during Boston’s comedy heyday with Jay Leno and Lenny Clarke. Nick Buzzell, who is 33, grew up in Hampton, N.H., where he established a theater company at his high school.

Both groups saw the feud between Arthur S. and Arthur T. Demoulas as inherently cinematic, with a fractured family fighting over a $4 billion, 75-store regional chain that’s beloved as a community fixture. The truth of the Market Basket saga is more complicated.

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His first investor was John Tinios, a family friend who owns the Galley Hatch restaurant in Hampton. It was Tinios who called Buzzell’s attention to the Market Basket story.

“I remember when he was 8, 9, 10 years old, he was telling everyone he was going to be the next Steven Spielberg,” said Tinios. He introduced Buzzell to the manager of the Seabrook Market Basket, a regular at the Galley Hatch.

Both teams say they’re telling different versions of the story. Childs’ film is an inside look at the demonstrations, while “We the People” focuses on the long-simmering Demoulas feud. In fact, Buzzell hints the NBTV team may have further plans—ideally a feature film.

“Call it a sequel,” he said.

Childs is finishing his documentary with $66,000 raised through crowdfunding, while NBTV’s film is financed by $1 million from 10 investors, all from New Hampshire.

Friedman acknowledges some the irony in a movie about a populist uprising financed by deep-pocketed backers. “We definitely want to make our investors whole,” he said. “At the same time, this is a little different. We’d love to spur a conversation.”

Near the end of Buzzell’s film, the filmmaker approaches Artie T. in a parking lot, holding a big microphone covered with a wind muff. While backing away, Demoulas allows that he likes the name of his inquisitor’s film: “We the People.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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