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March 9, 2007
The documentary 'Maxed Out' looks at the politics and pressures of credit card debt and its unequal effect on society.
By Kevin Crust, Times Staff Writer
Creditors knocking at your door? Up to your eyeballs in credit card debt? Besieged by offers for even more credit cards despite your inability to keep up with the ones you already have? Wondering how this is even possible?
Filmmaker and author James Scurlock wants to tell you in the timely documentary "Maxed Out," a biting critique of the credit card industry. Drawing on the stories of individuals from across the country, Scurlock etches a bleak view of the state of personal debt while taking aim at the predatory strategies of lenders, the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of collection agencies and the cozy relationships between recent Republican administrations and major financial institutions.
Americans, if you haven't heard, are racking up personal debt in record numbers. Reportedly, the average family has more than $9,000 in credit card debt. It seems that it has become a staple of the evening news to rattle off statistics such as these as financial gurus like Suze Orman ply us with promises of money makeovers and admonish us to repent or else.
So while the premise of "Maxed Out" may not surprise, some of the details will. Scurlock connects the dots between major banks and their practices in targeting those most vulnerable Ñ college students, the elderly, the previously bankrupted Ñ and makes a compelling case that something needs to be done. Many of the stories depicted are tragic, and some are plain strange.
For a film dealing with numbers, it's surprisingly nimble, balancing interviews with people who have been personally affected and financial experts, members of the finance industry and even a surprisingly sympathetic pawnbroker. Scurlock does well to counter the more dire aspects of the film with a razor-sharp sense of humor.
The most troubling facet of the world depicted in "Maxed Out" is that it's yet another avenue from which the nation's wealth flows from the poorest to the richest. It's easy to dismiss the problem as one of personal responsibility Ñ especially if you're debt-free Ñ but everyone should be worried about the two-tiered economic structure it fosters, one in which there is no room for a middle class.
"Maxed Out." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.
"Magnolia gets 'Out'," Variety
By Steven Zeitchik
November 13, 2006
Plans to share debt docu with Netflix Unusual release for 'Maxed'
Magnolia is close to acquiring rights to "Maxed Out," the critically acclaimed docu about Americans and the debt industry, directed by James Scurlock.
Distrib would pick up the movie jointly with Netflix's Red Envelope acquisition label.
Pic will likely be a theatrical release from Truly Indie, with a late winter date being eyed. Under one scenario, pic would go into homevid as a Red Envelope release for Netflix and a Magnolia Home Entertainment release to retail outlets.
Gotham-based sales agent Submarine Entertainment is handling the sale with Roger Kass. Submarine's Josh Braun previously repped breakout docu hits "Spellbound" and "Super Size Me" and made one of the biggest sales at the Toronto Film Festival, selling, with CAA, horror-comedy "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane" to Dimension.
"Maxed Out" could be positioned as a breakout documentary along the lines of a previous Magnolia release, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," which was a surprise hit in 2005 and earned an Oscar nomination.
The rental arm of Netflix has had success with documentaries, helping to turn "Capturing the Friedmans" into an unlikely hit.
Pic likely will be timed to release with "Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders," a book by Scurlock about the debt industry published by Simon & Schuster imprint Scribner. Title was supposed to come out later in 2007, but release date was moved up after Magnolia and Netflix entered the scene.
According to people who have seen the book proposal, it covers somewhat different characters and territory as the pic but has a similar tone.
"Maxed Out," which bowed at the South by Southwest Film Festival this year and won a special jury prize, follows ordinary Americans who are hamstrung by debt. Pic takes the point of view of people who are seduced by but then often choke on mortgages, credit cards and other bank loans. It also investigates practices and tactics of the banks and credit card companies.
Scurlock said he was influenced by "Super Size Me," another doc that used investigative techniques to explore the plight of ordinary Americans. On the movie's Web site, Scurlock notes the coincidence of his name being similar to the director of that film, Morgan Spurlock, which also could become a news hook for the movie's publicity campaign.
In another twist, debut helmer Scurlock nearly maxed out his own credit cards to finance the movie.
Variety called the movie "intelligent, informative and unusually entertaining" when it played SXSW. Movie generated strong interest at the fest and has had a number of suitors since its screening there.
"Credit Cruncher," Newsweek
By Jessica Bennett
April 13, 2006
In 'Maxed Out,' filmmaker James Scurlock takes a scathing look at the lending industry and reveals the tragic consequences of excessive consumer debt.
Americans are buying with plastic at a staggering rate. From lattes to vacation packages, car payments to home-equity loans, our reliance on credit is increasing. Even the Internal Revenue Service endorses credit cards as a "convenient" way to pay your taxes. The average American family carried about $9,300 in credit-card debt in 2005 reports the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Dallas. But what happens when borrowers who already have sizable debts are offered more credit?
Director James Scurlock, 34, set out to tackle that question in "Maxed Out," a documentary he intended as a comic portrayal of consumer irresponsibility. What the self-described "finance geek" and former publisher of a financial newsletter ended up with however, is a much starker taleone of struggle, suicide and desperation. "I think the people in the film would like nothing more than to pay off their bills, but they've just gotten to a point where it's not possible," says Scurlock. "And at some point, they're just being preyed on [by lenders] and manipulated and squeezed so hard that they can't ever hope to recover. And that's not right."
The indie production won critical acclaim at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, in March. And in 2007, Simon & Schuster plans to publish a memoir based on Scurlock's interviews and travels during the making of the film. NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett spoke with the director about consumer debt and the relationship between low-income Americans and the financial industry. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why make a movie about credit card debt?
James Scurlock: Debt is the one issue that affects all of us‹rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, liberal or conservative. It's such a huge issue, and at the time I just wanted to ask the question, "Why can't so many of us get out of debt? What is it about debt that's so addictive that we can't live without it?"
What do you hope to get across?
Two things: one is that the financial industry has changed a lot in the last generation, and people need to realize that ... We're in a totally different time now where we're deluged every day with offers of credit. And the second thing is that I think people need to start getting active with Congress and [pressuring them] into changing the balance that's been so weighted toward the financial industry and against the consumer.
What's changed about the lending industry?
The major change is that the industry discovered that the most profitable consumers were the least responsible consumerscollege students, people who'd declared bankruptcy, housewives [and] people who were consuming beyond their means. People who would pay anything for creditany fee or any interest rate because they needed more credit. That's the major change. Before, credit was rationed based on whether you could pay it back, based on your reputation, based on your character to some degree. It's just not that way anymore, and that's a huge change.
What's behind the increase in risky borrowing?
There are a few things: first, lack of regulation. Since the early '70s, usury laws have virtually been eliminated so [credit-card companies] can charge virtually whatever interest rate they want. Second, technology. The modern credit system couldn't exist without the technology we have today. Back when Visa was just getting started in the late '60s and early '70s, [credit-card] processing took a long time ... Now, these transactions take place in less than a second. Third: back in the '60s and '70s ... a lot of bankers objected to credit cards and said they were not going to give consumers the noose from which to hang themselves‹that was immoral, that was unethical ... They understood that people would abuse credit if given too much of it, and the banker had to fill this role of regulator. That philosophy doesn't exist any more.
Has the system of credit ratings changed?
The credit score is what's really changed. Taking all this data and distilling it into a single number and having that number alone determine whether you get a credit card, or a car loan, at what interest rate, whether you get insurance, what you pay for your utilities, whether you can get an apartment. This idea that there's one number that determines your credit is very new, and there's no human interaction, there's no local banker to vouch for you.
How often is the information on credit reports wrong?
David Szwak is a [consumer] attorney in the film who spends most of his time now suing credit bureaus over errors. In their depositions of credit-bureau attorneys, they've been told on record that over 90 percent of credit reports have errors on them. And I think anyone in the industry would vouch for that.
How difficult is it to get those errors corrected?
Getting something changed on your credit report is incredibly difficult, and it's become even more so because there's no incentive for the credit bureau to take that information off. Because the more negative information on your credit report, the more interest you can be charged, the more fees you can be charged.
What protections are there for consumers?
The check is supposed to be Congress, but I think Congress isn't filling that role anymore. There are a lot of watchdog and advocacy groups out there that are trying to represent consumers who have been taken advantage of, or just aren't sophisticated enough to understand what they're getting into [when they borrow]. But I don't think most of us are sophisticated enough anymore. It's gotten so complicated, and complicated by design. The Senate Banking Committee held a hearing last year on the credit-card industry, and practically every senator on the committee‹Democrats and Republicans both, said, "I don't understand my credit-card statement." It's meant to be complicated.
You contend that the financial industry is exploiting the impoverished.
That was the most shocking thing. We traveled around with this journalist and went to New York, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. If you had told me that Citigroup, which is [one of the] largest financial groups in the world, was trolling the backwoods of Mississippi for customers, I would have questioned your veracity. But they are, and they're finding people. They're going around very poor neighborhoods, in very poor parts of the country, finding people who have some home equity, finding people who've been responsible, who've saved, who have something left, and taking it from them.
You say that there's a relationship between poverty and the increase in credit offers.
I think [these offers] are causing poverty. I think what you're seeing is the middle class disappearing, and I think [the financial industry has] a lot to do with that. I don't think they're the only factor by any means. But I think when you go into a solidly middle-class neighborhood and flood it with high-interest loans, yes, you are pushing people into poverty. When you go out and encourage people who are living within their means to refinance their homes so they can go on vacation or buy a new car or fix up their house, and tell them it's great because it'll increase their home equity, you're not doing them any favors.
College students played a big role in the film. Why are they so attractive to credit-card companies?
College students are a really attractive market because they have parents who will bail them out, and they love spending money, and they're not nearly as sophisticated as they think they are. And there's a lot of research showing that once you get a customer, they'll stay with you for a very long time. [Credit-card companies] are looking at getting lifetime customers.
Two women in the film had college-age children who committed suicide after acquiring a debilitating amount of debt. Was that a surprise?
We started out looking for stories we thought would be funny and illustrative of consumers being irresponsible, because that's the conventional wisdom. But I remember the second or third interview we did, suicide came up, and this woman started crying ... From then on I just remember every interview was so emotional, and suicide came up over and over and over again. And I was shockedbut when people get trapped and they can't see any way out, suicide definitely comes to mind. Everybody we talked to who was a victim of predatory lending said they had considered suicide.
How can we curb excessive borrowing?
I think the industry needs to start using income as a factor, and I think they need to act more like insurance companies that audit you and monitor you, and call you and make sure you're still driving the same car, you're still driving the same number of miles, and you still have a job. I think if credit-card companies could adopt that model more, even though they don't think it's to their advantage. And I don't know why there hasn't been more pressure on them to do that.
"The Ins & Outs of Hipster Conference SXSW," E! Online
by Team Megaplex
March 22, 2006
Texas Stranger: With more than 200 films and 1,300 bands spread over nine days, Austin's annual South by Southwest conference (or SXSW, for those in the knowlike you!) is a media marathon. Think of it as the Big Gulp of hipster culture and great little movies you haven't yet heard about.
So, of course Team Megaplex was there, scouting for stars (wait, is that Luke Wilson? Look, there's Charlize Theron, producing a doc about Cuban rappers!) and drinking in this onslaught of indie premieres, barbecue and loud music. All to bring you the best dirt from the warmest film festival this year. Here's what we learned:
Documentaries Are (Still) the New Black: And they don't come any better than Maxed Out, an eye-opening look at consumer debt that gives lenders the Super Size Me treatment. Alternately heartbreaking and hilarious, director James Scurlock's fearless feature debut took home a Special Jury Award.
"Maxed Out," Variety
by Joe Leydon
March 21, 2006
Much like Oscar-nominated "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," James D. Scurlock's "Maxed Out" earns points for at least partly clarifying the daunting complexities of financial wheeler-dealings that might normally confuse even Wall Street insiders and biz -press commentators. Intelligent, informative and unusually entertaining docu errs only when it yanks too insistently on heartstrings while focusing on worst-case scenarios involving desperate debtors driven to suicide. Pic should generate interest on the fest circuit, and conceivably could connect with venturesome mainstream auds through theatrical and homevid exposure.
With equal measures of righteous outrage and sardonic wit, Scurlock illuminates the dark side of capitalism by examining the worst abuses of the consumer-lending industry. Impoverished rural families are lured into risking their homesteads by taking ill-advised bank loans while naive college students with limited incomes are encouraged to accumulate massive debt by credit-card issuers.
According to at least one on-camera expert, however, the customers most avidly desired by some lending institutions are middle-class folks who have already declared bankruptcy. Why? Because they're the ones most willing to accept draconian interest rates -- and least likely to be granted another bankruptcy judgment.
Harvard Law School economics professor Elizabeth Warren, the most eloquent of the pic's many talking-head interviewees, recalls warning a group of mortgage bankers to be far more selective when it comes to lending big sums to high-risk customers. But her advice was rebuffed, she claims, because foreclosing on unpaid mortgages is great for the bottom line in the long run. "Consumer lending," Warren notes, "is obscenely profitable."
Investigative reporters, predatory debt collectors and a pawnbroker who caters to financially strapped yuppies are among the colorful supporting players in Scurlock's true-life drama. Radio host Dave Ramsey, a Nashville-based, born-again Christian financial guru, draws upon his own experiences as an insolvent borrower while offering tough-love advice to his listeners. ("I've done stupid with zeroes on the end of it," he admits.)
But even the voluble Ramsey occasionally is rendered speechless by tales of woe from overburdened borrowers who worry that, when it comes to maintaining minimum monthly payments, "death will be the only debt discharge."
"Quick Takes: Advance looks at some of the films," The Independent Weekly
April 5, 2006
Our writers were able to review advance copies of nearly half of this year's competitive slate. It
seems to us that while this year's lineup may be a few hits short of a legendary festival, the overall
quality is quite strong with very few weak films. Consult your schedules for screening times and
venues. Capsule reviews are by Grayson Currin, David Fellerath, Fiona Morgan and Neil Morris. Titles
preceded by an asterisk are highly recommended.
*Maxed Out (86 min.) Anyone who's ever tried to correct their credit report will appreciate
this highly effective examination of the credit card industry, which collects two dollars
in interest and penalties for every dollar lent. News and CSPAN footage, music and educational
films pepper the interviews, which explain why credit card companies are eager to lend money
to people who've filed for bankruptcy, and how the national debt is connected to the hole
middle-class families have dug themselves into. We predict this one will see national release. --FM
"Maxed Out," Film Threat
by Sally Foster
March 23, 2006
In a nation where nearly everything is purchased on credit and the average household debt has been steadily rising for decades, millions of people in America have simply accustomed themselves to living in endless debt. But is it necessary that we merely resign ourselves to coexist not-so-peacefully with debt, or is there a way out? At a time when our debt as individuals and as a nation is at an all-time high, "Maxed Out" offers a much needed look at this escalating dilemma.
In "Maxed Out," director/producer James Scurlock collects interviews with a variety of people, including debt collectors, experts and the individuals affected by debt. The end result is an alarming expose on the realities of this epidemic; as our nation's families sink further and further into debt, interest and penalty fees accrue, catapulting the overall amounts owed into startling heights. The film is tight and well-constructed, weaving interviews with stock footage of news stories about debt, as well as frightening statistics, expert opinions, and a discussion of government policies on the subject. Also present in the equation is our country's own climbing debt, held at bay for the time being by the quick-fix solution known as "surfing," the act of paying off debt with more debt.
"Maxed Out" is a skillful intertwining of facts, interviews and vignettes, ultimately coming together to form a picture of our country's current financial state. Juxtaposing stories of individuals who have resorted to bankruptcy or even suicide with the ardent justification of tactics by debt collectors, the film serves well as a cautionary tale against the dangers of charging everything. But disturbingly absent in all this is any suggestion of a way to solve the problem. Many of the experts interviewed skirt around the issue, but in the end, no real solution is offered. What results is an intensely depressing analysis of a problem from which there really seems to be no feasible escape route.
The film is absorbing and fast-paced, and Scurlock has successfully pulled together an immense wealth of information into a coherent look at the country's ever-building debt epidemic. But through it all, the tone of the movie is relentlessly dark and fatalistic, making it more than a little disheartening to sit through. In addition to offering no solution, "Maxed Out" approaches the situation from a standpoint that completely negates the role of the individual in any of this; the film depicts a country in which the privileged few are feeding off the many, with credit card companies specifically targeting those individuals who are least likely to be able to pay in order to prey off of their misfortune. Though highly informative and undeniably interesting, by the end, "Maxed Out" just left me looking for an answer and finding none.
"Beyond the Multiplex," Salon.com
by Andrew O'Hehir
March 16, 2006
AUSTIN, Texas It's the end of an exhausting, exciting week of movies in Texas and I feel something
like one of those legendary Casanovas, Clark Gable or Warren Beatty or whoever, who spends his declining
years brooding over the women he didn't bag. I have watched an awful lot of films in the last few days at
the South by Southwest Film Festival, but there are always more, and the ones that haunt me are the ones unseen.
I saw Lindsay Lohan shake her groove thang, as much as she is able, in "A Prairie Home Companion." I sat breathless
through the final minutes of the documentary "OilCrash," maybe the ultimate feel-bad apocalyptic film ever made
and the one true knockout at SXSW this year. I snorted up coffee at Charles Nelson Reilly's sweet and hilarious
impression of Meryl Streep watching the rushes of "Sophie's Choice." (That's in "The Life of Reilly.") I nearly
jumped out of my seat when the Pixies finally played "Monkey Gone to Heaven," over the closing credits of
"loudQUIETloud." I choked back tears while an Oklahoma woman described the night her college-age daughter hanged
herself in her dorm room, overwhelmed by credit-card debt. (That's in the documentary "Maxed Out," another
2) No, I mean real trouble. Then there's "Maxed Out," not quite as much a hammer-blow to the skull but still
quite something. When somebody can make a film about credit-card debt, with every expectation that it will
reach theaters and ordinary Americans will shell out $8 to $11 to sit and watch it, we've arrived at a
peculiar cultural moment. That someone is James Scurlock, and as he observed at the screening I attended,
many people think he also made "Super Size Me." (That would be Morgan Spurlock. ) Another strong
journalistic-style film, this one exposes how unbelievably rapacious the financial industries have
become in extending credit to unlikely prospectsamong them college students, nursing-home residents,
small children, dogs and dead peopleand how much our entire economy, micro and macro, is driven by
vast and unsustainable levels of debt. So which will happen first: American society collapses because it'll
cost $800 to fill up the Navigator, or because we all owe more money (at 21 percent interest, compounded
daily) to Citibank and MBNA than we'll earn from now until the day we die?
"Neck deep in debt," The Toronto Star
by Geoff Pevere
March 15, 2006
Movie looks at real cost of credit
Maxed Out draws cheers at SXSW
AUSTIN, TEX.At the world premiere of James Scurlock's Maxed Out here at the South by Southwest
Film Festival last Saturday, people were cheering.
This is not unusual. In the intensely artist-friendly atmosphere here people will cheer at the mere existence
of something someone created out of nothing. But a movie about credit card debt?
Two days following the tumultuous response to his movie, 34-year-old director Scurlocka former
business school student with no formal film trainingsat down to discuss the galvanizing impact his
movie seems to be having on viewers.
He's not terribly surprised. Although he might have been before he knew just how pervasive, and systemically
insidious, his subject is.
"Look," Scurlock said. "You can choose not to go to McDonald's, you can choose not to eat badly, and a
lot of people do, but it's impossible not to use credit in this country. Even if you're the Unabomber
and you're completely off the grid, you're still on the hook for the national debt, and your state debt
and the city debt. So debt affects everyone in our culture."
When he first conceived of Maxed Out, Scurlock was thinking of a funny movie about a credit-crazy
country. But as he delved more deeply, another more sinister scenario emerged: a financial and political
culture that encourages debt and profits from it, and an epidemic of vulnerable individuals who have ruined
their lives because they're being cheerfully pushed, if not outright bullied, into doing just that.
"Originally it was going to be a lighthearted, Super Size Me kind of film," says Scurlock,
"because the conventional wisdom is that we consume too much and we're irresponsible consumers.
"But I found out getting into it that the real story was how the financial industry has changed over
the last generation and encouraged us to be irresponsible, and then preyed on irresponsible people
and is making their money off of people who are desperate. You know: taking people who used to go to a
pawn shop or a loan shark or something and welcoming them with open arms and then just really taking
advantage of them. That became the film."
The other thing that took Scurlock by surprise was the willingness of people to go public with their
tales of suicide by plastic: two women whose college-aged kids killed themselves over credit
card bills; a woman who was declared deceased by three major credit bureaus; a poor, mentally
challenged black woman with a mentally handicapped adult son whom a financial institution is threatening
to throw out on the street.
Everywhere he went, and continues to go, Scurlock is hearing more stories about being maxed out.
"You'd think people wouldn't want to talk about being broke," Scurlock observes. "And most people don't."
It's a big secret, it's a big taboo.
"And yet there are people," he continues, "and these are most of the people in the film, who have
just been pushed too hard. They've gotten over that threshold of shame and realized that they've
been manipulated and they have not been treated fairly.
"A lot of them are angry and some of them are resigned.
"But they've gotten over that hump and said `You know what? Maybe I screwed up, maybe my son
screwed up, maybe I wasn't always the most responsible person or maybe I shouldn't have fallen
on hard times. But I shouldn't have then been beaten up and left to die because of it.'"
No wonder folks are cheering.
"Anger deep in the heart of Texas," The Toronto Star
by Geoff Pevere
March 17, 2006
AUSTIN, TEX. You hear it everywhere you go here: Austin ain't like the rest of Texas. You hear it from filmmakers, South by Southwest festival volunteers, waiters and convenience store clerks. You hear it from visitors, residents, refugees from other parts of the state and cab drivers. Boy, do you hear it from cab drivers.
Last night, en route back to my highway hotel from a screening downtown, the taxi driver unleashed a completely unsolicited litany of charges against the administration of George W. Bush. Bush originally came to power here in the state capital as the Governor of Texas, but just about everybody wants you to know that George W. Bush doesn't represent Austin. And Austin ain't like the rest of Texas.
But you wouldn't have to spend much time in restaurants, line-ups, convenience stores and especially cabs to suspect that's true. All you have to do is watch a couple of movies in SXSW to get the sneaking suspicion that this is not Bush country.
If documentaries are the heart of the film stream of this event, then the energy driving most of them is a shared conviction that there's something sick in the American soul. Since I arrived here a week ago, I've seen movies about the epidemic in debilitating credit card debt (Maxed Out); the increasingly common phenomenon of getting dumped, outsourced, downsized or just plain canned from your job (Fired!); the decline of American popular music (Before the Music Dies); the imminent collapse of the international oil industry (OilCrash); the painful political coming of age of a liberal former TV comedian (Al Franken: God Spoke); the explosion of the private military industry (Shadow Company); the death of the mythical frontier (The Last Western); the corporate foreclosure of an American broadcasting institution (Robert Altman's fictional, but in this context fitting, A Prairie Home Companion); and even a movie about one man's lifelong struggle just to get some shuteye (Wide Awake). And what's keeping him from sleeping? He's reading the news too much. America is messing with his serenity.
The current surge in American independent documentary production, which SXSW represents with such convincing on-screen evidence, may be the result of technologyit's easier and cheaper than ever to make a non-fiction movie. But it's also the result of an apparent shared determination to speak out against a world gone wrong. Over and over again in interviews, filmmakers were telling me that they were inspired to make their movies because they'd suspected that the things that were bothering them were larger problems than they thought. And, as they proceeded to research their movies, they learned they were right. There were a lot of people out there who were feeling similarly anxious, and who wanted, no needed, to talk about it.
Annabelle Gurwitch, the writer, producer and first-person voice of Fired!, learned that getting dumped from a play by no less a dumper than Woody Allen was merely symptomatic of a vast experience in corporate America. Her movie leads her from the hermetic world of New York middlebrow theatre to the exponentially downsizing assembly lines of middle America.
Nick Bicanic, Vancouver-based co-director of Shadow Company, began his investigation of the burgeoning military contracting industry by simply wondering what kinds of guys comprised the estimated 20,000 freelance soldiers currently at work in Iraq. And he was surprised by what he learnedboth about the industry and about those who profited from it. In a way, his movie, like Gurwitch's, is about people just trying to find work in a drastically changing global economy.
Then there's James Scurlock's powerfully moving but decidedly unsettling Maxed Out (which won a prize here Tuesday night). Also inspired by the filmmaker's simple curiosity about just what got people so deeply and irrecoverably in debt, Maxed Out traces a similar, abstract-to-individual journey. His movie makes such a powerful indictment against a financial industry that preys on the weak and vulnerable, with an utter lack of either moral or judicial restraint, because it's anchored in the frequently wrenching testimonies of the people at the bottom. The problem may be big, but the pain is personal.
It's the people who stick with you after watching these documentaries. And it's the people who remind you that any country, anywhere, is really just a collection of individuals doing their best to get by. And these days, the means to do that are becoming both scarce and scary. These are the true "stars" of this particular film festival in this conspicuously exceptional city deep in the heart of Texas. They are the average Americans who worry and suffer for the country that has let them down.
But they're not suffering in silence any more. They're speaking out. They're mad and when Americans get mad, they revolt. Any Austin cab driver will tell you as much.
"Britain 'beats US for problem borrowing'," The Guardian
by Rupert Jones
December 23, 2006
Film maker tells Rupert Jones that UK firms peddle products they know are harmful
First it was McDonald's (Super Size Me) and then climate change (An Inconvenient Truth). Now it is credit card companies that are about to come in for a celluloid kicking, with the release of Maxed Out, a new documentary and a book that exposes the dark underbelly of the US consumer boom.
Filmmaker James Scurlock set out to show how America is "crumbling beneath a staggering burden of individual and government debt". The film, which will be shown in British cinemas next year, reveals the tactics employed by financial companies for getting people into debt and keeping them there - and highlights some of the personal tragedies such as two college-age students who hanged themselves after becoming overwhelmed by credit card debt.
Maxed Out, screened at the Leeds International Film Festival last month, is due to be shown at the Oxdox documentary film festival in Oxford in March. In his preface to the book of the same name - to be published in Britain by HarperCollins on January 2- Scurlock claims that while America's debt problem is bad, "it is much worse in the United Kingdom".
He said it first began to dawn on him that Britain was in a bad way about a year and a half ago, when he learned that total net lending to individuals had passed the £1 trillion mark. He writes: "Living in Britain has become increasingly expensive, health services and other public goods are being reduced ... and large, trusted financial institutions are peddling products which they know to be so harmful that they themselves won't partake of them" - the last, a reference to Barclays boss Matt Barrett's infamous comments about not racking up debts on credit cards because it is too expensive.
"If you look at it statistically, per capita, it is worse in the UK in terms of consumer debt," 35-year-old Scurlock told the Guardian this week. And, the Los Angeles-based filmmaker pointed out, "it is growing faster over there" - personal debt now stands at almost £1.3 trillion.
"Some of the problems are the same [as in the US]. The cost of housing has increased dramatically," he added. "When I was in Britain last month the big news was Abbey raising the mortgage ratio to five times income. The better thing about the UK is you have regulators that are actually looking into these things - the FSA [Financial Services Authority] and OFT [Office of Fair Trading]."
As well as providing an overview of the economic forces at work, Maxed Out the movie tells the stories of ordinary Americans who have been engulfed by their debts, and flashes up a stack of statistics, including the claim that this year, more Americans will go bankrupt than will get divorced, graduate from college or get cancer.
While the film's focus is the US, it features a number of companies which British consumers will be very familiar with. We see the letter sent out by Capital One Auto Finance - an arm of the US and UK credit card group - telling a disabled woman in a nursing home, who has no income, that she has been pre-selected for up to $30,000 (£15,000) worth of car finance. And how many of MBNA's UK cardholders were aware that the US-based card issuer is George W Bush's top campaign contributor?
" The Bank of Britain: How did you spend Christmas?," The Independent
December 26, 2006
Our credit cards are at their limits, our accounts overdrawn, and our houses mortgaged to the hilt. Yet even before we've digested the turkey and unwrapped our last presents, millions of us are heading for the sales, desperate to buy, buy, buy. What's driving this lust to spend? And is there any way out of our spiral of debt? James Scurlock, author of 'Maxed Out', investigates
Publishers love the month after Christmas. Fresh from weeks of over-indulging on food and credit cards, a great throng invades bookshops for advice on losing weight and getting out of debt in what constitutes the largest - and ultimately fruitless - mea culpa on earth.
While I can't predict what the scales will tell, I can say with absolute certainty that this year most Britons will have found themselves in more debt than ever. How do I know this? Not because of Christmas - the gifting thing has been a tradition for at least a couple of thousand years now, and there's no record of the three wise men having to go on a "debt diet" - but because easy credit, American-style, has landed on British shores, and the consequences of this invasion are as predictable as the opening of yet another Starbucks.
For the past several years, I have studied the explosion of consumer debt in America for my book, Maxed Out: The Book the Debt Industry Doesn't Want You to Read. For most of that time, I assumed that the United States' addiction to credit must be unique. We have long been the most infamous overspenders. Or, as our President proudly spins it, I and my fellow citizen-consumers power the locomotive of the world's economy. Yet I might just as easily have done my research in the UK, where the American model of easy, high-cost credit is creating an even bigger mess, and where the cracks are just beginning to show.
One Brit who understands our debt issues well is Mark Davis, aka Mr Piggy Bankrupt. Davis is a 27-year-old graduate of the University of Manchester who began an insurance brokerage out of school, adding huge burdens to an already staggering £25,300 he had accumulated in student debt and graduate loans.
After changes in the insurance business wiped out his profits, Davis held his breath and declared bankruptcy. Several months later, he's working for a hi-tech firm, has lost his girlfriend and is still contemplating the effect that financial failure has had on his life.
In many ways, he tells me, bankruptcy really hasn't led to many changes - his family didn't ostracise him, and he's kept the same friends (minus one). Still, he calls declaring bankruptcy the most significant event of his life. There's the knowledge that getting credit will be very expensive (though probably not very difficult), and the more troubling awareness of being labelled a bankrupt for the rest of his life.
Davis started up Piggy's Bankruptcy Site (www.piggybankrupt.co.uk) because, when he was in trouble, he found there was a dearth of information that was relevant and helpful. He remembers having questions about the bankruptcy process and the future consequences of declaring himself bankrupt, but there was only a toll-free line to call, and no one to speak to who'd actually been through it. Websites, he says, were mostly commercial, selling Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA) services or self-help books. With Piggy's Bankruptcy Site, he's created a forum where people can reflect on their situations, share experiences and, hopefully, make better-informed choices.
E-mails to Davis's website have spiked in recent months, presumably owing to the season. He's been contacted by lots of people worried about paying for gifts, although most people wait until they can't put food on the table, or until the door is padlocked, before they admit that there's a problem.
Perhaps that's a function of denial, or a fear of emasculation. "One thing I've come to realise," he says, "is that your role within a family can be redefined immediately [by debt]. If a man is the breadwinner, the missus becomes the breadwinner and his role is reduced, or vice versa."
The stigma of debt is something I've come to see again and again in my interviews - and the lengths people will go to to hide their debt can be both shocking and heartbreaking.
To avert the stigma, many of the people who visit Piggy's Bankruptcy Site go down the IVA route, which is similar to the Chapter 13 bankruptcy in the United States. In this, a timetable is negotiated where debts are paid over a longer period. But some IVAs are failing, Davis says, because the companies neglect to account for non-essential essentials - like Christmas gifts.
The one mystery Davis cannot solve is what has convinced Britons, of all people, to gorge on debt. To an American, this is an almost unfathomable contradiction. After all, Britain is the land of free healthcare and subsidised education, the land where understatement, restraint and modesty are virtues. Even the British colonial model was far more responsible - at least in the purely economic sense - than our own.
The British learnt to exact taxes from their subjects, while we are inclined to borrow from ours - and yours as well. Americans never quite took to the stiff upper-lip. While going broke was still an offence punishable by execution on your shores, our founding fathers were contemplating what have become among the most liberal bankruptcy laws in the world.
True, Brits invented tabloid journalism and reality television, but it is in my hometown of Los Angeles that paparazzi stalk the boutiques of Beverly Hills, broadcasting the latest (and most expensive) trends to the shopping masses, who are expected to fork out whatever is demanded for a pair of the right jeans, and to encrust their cellphones with diamonds. How else to explain $1,500 (£760) denims and $200 T-shirts?
Yet I only became aware of the problem in Britain a year and a half ago when an American professor I interviewed told me that he was being flown to London with the Princeton economist Paul Krugman, to commemorate a dubious milestone: Britons' accumulation of over $1 trillion in consumer debt. The British, he said, were in a panic. Credit-card executives were grilled before Parliament; the Queen was warned of consequences; the Financial Services Authority was investigating.
I decided to take my investigation further afield. Despite having interviewed several British expats living in America for my book, I was intrigued to see for myself whether the problem really was as bad as it seemed.
I arrived in London at the height of this year's Christmas buying season - an especially promising time and place for an investigation. Tourist shopping districts such as Bond Street and Oxford Street were glittering, although fewer Americans were in town, owing to the dollar's 15-year low against the pound.
But my destination was decidedly un-tourist-friendly: a meeting of Debtors Anonymous, the 12-step programme for debtors who have come to believe that the problem is something more than mathematics; that it is an issue of behaviour, an addiction, a spiritual deficiency that can only be addressed by reprogramming one's guiding principles.
The first step at Debtors Anonymous is this: "We admit we were powerless over debt - that our lives had become unmanageable." The meeting I attended was in the basement of a Methodist church in the West End, sandwiched into a small room, slotted between a salsa class and an Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship.
DA jealously guards the confidentiality of its proceedings, so I will not divulge specifics. Suffice it to say that there were men and women present, and that the issues raised in the confessional-like sharing sessions involved student loans, the abandonment of bank accounts due to excessive (and perhaps illegal) fees, and, of course, the overwhelmingly imminent expense of Christmas gift-buying.
In the middle of the room were a number of placards bearing slogans such as "Plastic is not a precious metal" and "Debtors are people who cannot afford to be themselves". The meetings are democratic and straightforward, and end with a prayer.
I found myself bonding with a woman who alternated between recognising herself in the slogans and wondering: "What am I doing here?" She didn't spend much, but didn't earn enough either. In a city as expensive as London, it is somehow possible to become indebted on the basest necessities.
Earlier, I had privately met "Joe", a government worker. "It's fashionable to be an alcoholic and a drug addict," he lamented. "The one thing that's taboo is being in financial trouble."
Like Mark Davis and others, Joe's pattern of "debting" began with student loans and never stopped. He declared bankruptcy two decades ago. Now he's in a new marriage and has managed to save by obsessing over every aspect of his financial life - by writing down every purchase and every scrap of income, even a penny found on the street. "I changed," he says, "when I admitted that I was powerless."
Suicide, one of the recurring themes of my research at home, emerged in the conversation with Joe, as well as with others. On another website, a man who lost his job talked of wanting to "disappear", a euphemism that is hauntingly familiar, especially when he envisions himself walking into the Thames and never reemerging. One of the subjects I researched in the States was a woman who drove her car into the Ohio river and drowned. In both cases, the individuals were being called several times a day by debt collection agencies (DCAs). Countless blogs confirm that the collectors' weapons of choice - wounding pride, humiliating, threatening ruin of reputation - are exactly the same here as in the States. On the debt collection sites, it's a very different story - breathless articles on explosive growth and a frantic search for new employees.
Although no one I interviewed blamed their problems on larger forces, a glance back over news stories of the past few years reveals why financial problems have become so widespread and so intransigent. There is the purchase of the most expensive house in the history of mankind in London, epitomising the stratospheric rise in the cost of housing. There is the scaling back of Government assistance in education and healthcare, including the case of one woman who was denied cancer treatment because of its high cost. There's the study showing that the British are relying on their credit cards to buy necessities such as motor fuel and groceries, even as the former chief executive of Barclays Bank admits that he would not himself use a credit card because of its high cost.
So living in Britain has become increasingly expensive; services and other public goods are being scaled back (which means that their cost is being shifted on to the backs of the public); and large, trusted financial institutions are teaching us to become more dependent on a product they know to be so harmful that their own executives won't use it. The UK bears a striking resemblance to the United States.
Strangely, it is the Tories who have now taken the lead on sounding the alarm with a report titled Breakdown Britain, which estimates the number of citizens in financial crisis at eight times the official number, calls the society "increasingly dysfunctional" and warns that the financial industry's predations may lead to criminal behaviour.
Yet, if American history is any guide, debt of this magnitude has built up an inertia that is as futile to resist as it is counter-intuitive. Debt has a smoothing effect and an air of inevitability; it has the ability to disguise its own consequences, at least in the short term. When our US national debt passed the trillion-dollar mark in the mid-1980s there was a brief uproar, but then President Ronald Reagan blamed the media and everyone seemed to forget about it. The $1 trillion in consumer debt that caused so much panic in the UK two years ago has shot up by 30 per cent since then, and the world has kept on turning - hasn't it?
The ballooning number of personal bankruptcies and IVAs give the lie to the notion that we can borrow our way out of debt. And it seems self-evident that banks cannot continue to profit from customers who are going broke. Yet, in the short term, that's exactly what they're doing.
And if America continues exporting its easy-credit model - and the recent news that Bank of America is keen on acquiring Barclays suggests that the invasion is far from over - the situation in the UK will probably get worse before the banks return to a more traditional business model and more prudent underwriting standards.
In the meanwhile, bankruptcies will continue to hit records; people will use high-interest credit as a backstop to keep their place in the middle class (including using credit cards to make interest payments on other credit cards); branches of Starbucks will continue to proliferate; and wise old souls will observe that society is regressing into a feudal state with only two classes - the owners of capital and those who rent it from them. Politicians will wash their hands and say that nothing can be done because the financial industry is too large and too woven into the fabric of society to be regulated.
The contradictions will foster a stubborn - but slippery - uneasiness, a suspicion among many of us that something just isn't quite right. In a period of unparalleled prosperity and stability, respectable people will slide into poverty - slowly at first, then with lightning speed. As free-marketers defend the sovereignty of the national currency, the demand for Visa and Mastercard tender will make the value of sterling less and less relevant.
As industry executives warn against regulating their sleek new profit machines, arguing that it is up to the consumer alone to inject responsibility into their system, they themselves will pledge the assets of their constituents at an astonishing rate in order to save their wealthiest citizens and corporations from the spectre of higher taxes, increasing the burden of the already maxed-out working classes. As the level of debt rises to more and more absurd levels, you will see inventions such as credit cards issued specifically to pay medical expenses; collection agencies hired to go after soldiers wounded in battle; the sale of personal information from public to private entities, and back again; and perhaps even a new bankruptcy scheme which reverts back to the 18th century - that is, a bear trap where lifelong imprisonment is the norm and death the only way for the majority to get out from under.
All of these scenarios have played out in America and, at one time or another in the very recent past, each has been heralded as a solution to a problem that most of us are loath to admit exists. If this sounds absurd, it is. If it sounds entirely implausible, I urge you to read Maxed Out. Believe it or not, it gets worse.
The good news is that there is nothing inevitable about the American experience. First, the British press seems to be more concerned about the issue (for example, the BBC's exposé on questionable bank fees two weeks ago).
Second, the British Government seems to be taking steps to address the worst cases of abuse by the financial industry - reminding those companies and its citizens that they are not, after all, above the law. The Office of Fair Trading recently ruled against banks and financial services companies that have been charging illegal fees in flagrant violation of UK laws, and capped credit-card fees at £12. In the United States, unlimited fees were made entirely legal by the Supreme Court less than a decade ago. Still, the fact that financial corporations in the UK are acting so brazenly - so American - seems more than a little telling.
Is the financial industry shaking in its designer boots? Probably not. I recall a conversation with a provincial minister in Canada who observed that, unlike the United States, his country had usury laws (interest rates above 60 per cent are prohibited). But the laws went unenforced. Why? He seemed to think the police were too busy with "real" crime to go after a bunch of bankers.
But there is another reason. Many of us in America, Canada and the UK can no longer live without easy credit; the threat of our plastic being taken away is terrifying, not only to politicians who expect the economy to grow year after year, but to us, who have become conditioned to believing easy credit will always be there. I suspect the Office of Fair Trading will find itself playing chicken with the credit-card companies, who will threaten to remove the punch-bowl and bring the party to an abrupt halt if they are not allowed to charge the fees and interest rates they've become accustomed to. In a preemptive strike worthy of Donald Rumsfeld, an industry spokeswoman reclassified penalties as "service fees" in an effort to remain within the law.
The great 19th-century liberal historian Lord Acton once predicted a climactic showdown between the people and the banks. He may finally be proved right; that is, if people cannot stop borrowing and the banks cannot stop enticing them to ruin. As Charles Dickens remarked of the time leading up to the French Revolution: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." At the moment, it is the best of times for the owners of capital. But for the rest of us, it is a very different story.
"The Credit Hard Sell," The Daily Record
by Lisa Adams
January 6, 2007
MILLIONS ARE FACING SPIRALLING DEBT PROBLEMS Money guru exposes the tricks of the trade in his new book
MEET the man on a mission to get you out of debt and restore your peace of mind.
If you're too scared to even open your credit card bill after the big spend over Christmas and pay day seems too far away to even pray for, then money guru James Scurlock could be your new year guardian angel.
Through his movie and a new book, Maxed Out, he claims to expose some of the methods credit card firms and banks use to get people into debt and keep them there.
James, 35, says: "The debt industry doesn't want you to know about this.
"Food and credit are our biggest addictions. Every January, most people vow to lose weight and get out of debt. Debt companies offer easy access to all the material comforts we can imagine, with all our dreams just aswipe away from coming true.
"Money defines us and money is what facilitates our lifestyles, our identities. Lose it and what do you have left?
"Credit card merchants want you in debt forever by maxing out your credit card but you don't have to be."
The statistics are frightening.
Personal debt in the UK is today more than £1.2trillion and research shows that figure is growing by £1million every four minutes.
But although most of us are already overdrawn, it's still tempting to head to the sales in search of that elusive bargain. Financial pressures and the crippling effects of interest payments on credit cards leave some folk so miserable they commit suicide.
"It was really shocking to see that people had committed suicide and had gone missing because of their debt problems," says James.
"As bad as it is in America, it is much worse in the United Kingdom.
If you look at it statistically, per capita, it is worse in the UK than the US in terms of consumer debt."
Bankruptcies in Scotland alone have soared to an all-time high, rising by more than 30 per cent since 1997.
The average spend per person on food and gifts was a record £673 this Christmas, according to research.
More than £12billion was spent on plastic. With the average credit card rate hovering around 15 per cent and many store cards charging close to double that, the next few months promise to be particularly lucrative for card issuers.
"Get savvy to the way the financial industry today works," says James.
"A letter or card which says you're a preferred or platinum customer is actually a euphemism for sucker."
Here, James shares his top secrets for getting back in to the black and staying there.
"South by Southwest: Austin-Powered," The Washington Post
by Ann Hornaday
March 18, 2006
As With Music Festival, Film Spinoff Shares City's Sense of Laid-Back Cool
AUSTIN Badges? You bet we need those stinking badges.
Such is the mantra of South by Southwest, this city's 20-year-old music festival and its more recent offshoots, the South by Southwest film and interactive conferences, which have gained international renown as ultra-happening confabs of artists, audiences, journalists and hipster apparatchiks.
Like black-clad swallows returning to a Tex-Mex version of Capistrano, veterans of South by Southwestor SXSW, or just "South by," as it's called by the true cognoscentiflock every spring to this oasis of pop culture, liberal politics and Shiner Bock beer, soaking up just enough to hold them for another year. But they're not going anywhere without those all-important laminates hanging awkwardly around their necks from bright blue ribbons festooned with the BMI logo.
This March has been no different, as SXSW kicked off last weekend with the premiere of Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" and the opening's sister event, the Texas Film Hall of Fame awards ceremony. Downtown at the Paramount Theatre, Austin's beautifully preserved 1915 movie palace, "Prairie" co-star John C. Reilly worked the enthusiastic crowd. Meanwhile, out at Austin Studios, a collection of soundstages and offices on the grounds of a former airport, Hall of Fame inductee Matthew McConaughey was treating guestswho gathered to eat steak and fries in a stifling hangarto a 20-minute ramble that included Too Much Information about his very conception (let's just say Dad died with his boots on). Members of McConaughey's bewildered audience sported their own special Texas Film Hall of Fame badges; the event raised $384,000 for the Austin Film Society.
The South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival was started 13 years ago by Louis Black and Nick Barbaro, both inveterate movie buffs who have managed to inject SXSW Film with the same cool that has made their music festivalwhich got underway Wednesdayan imperative for of-the-moment musicians and their most avid fans. (Black and Barbaro have day jobs as the editor and publisher, respectively, of the Austin Chronicle, an alternative newsweekly.)
Over the years, big-name filmmakers have chosen the venue for their premieres (Altman, John Sayles, Christopher Guest and Joel Schumacher among them), and it consistently attracts a quirky and absorbing lineup of features, shorts and documentaries. The festival's programming, as well as the cred of the music conference, has made it one of North America's best and most highly regarded second-tier festivals, a regional gem that may not be a frenzied market on a par with Sundance and Toronto, or a hushed cinephile retreat like Telluride, but has its own cachet nonetheless.
"We started a film festival to show the films we loved," recalled Black, who estimated that registration increased by 50 percent this year. He pointed out that SXSW is for film lovers, whether they're in or out of the film business. "When people say, 'You're the next Sundance,' I say, 'I hope not.' I love Sundance, but I want to do what we do."
On the first Saturday morning of the film festival, the badge-holders' line snaked around the block outside the Alamo Drafthouse theater for a screening of "Wide Awake," Alan Berliner's smart, funny, densely layered journey through his battles with insomnia, as well as his own psyche. The film was preceded by a hilarious trailer telling patrons not to talk during the movie "or Ann Richards will take your [rear end] out." (That homegrown effort proved to be far superior to the irritating "official" SXSW trailer produced by the Independent Film Channel; with its pseudo-edgy electric guitar music and lame animated hot dog smoking a cigarette, the promo is proof that there's nothing less hip than a corporation trying to be hip.)
"Wide Awake," which will eventually be shown on HBO, is among the festival's high points, which also include "The Notorious Bettie Page," starring Gretchen Mol and directed by Mary Harron, "Maxed Out," James D. Scurlock's riveting examination of America's debt problem, "East of Havana," a documentary about Cuba's rap scene, and "The Life of Reilly," a performance film about Charles Nelson Reilly's one-man show that finally gives this overlooked actor and teacher his due. (This year's jury award winners were the documentary "Jam," about a Bay Area man trying to revive roller derby, and "Live Free or Die," a comedy by two former "Seinfeld" writers about a would-be career criminal in New Hampshire.) The festival will close today with a screening of Paul Weitz's "American Dreamz."
Still, good films aren't enough to make a great festival. What makes SXSW great are the ineffable thingsthe warm weather; a dip in the freezing cold natural spring just minutes from downtown when that weather gets too warm; the breakfast migas at Las Manitas; getting your hair styled at a funky South Austin salon by the same woman who was scheduled to cut rock legend Roky Erickson's later that day; buying a portrait of Hank Williams by former Mekon Jon Langford at the folk art gallery Yard Dog; the music at the Continental Club; the music at Antone's; the music at Stubb's -- that make it a culture unto itself.
"People used to ask Orson Welles what films influenced him," said Black, "and he would say, 'Stagecoach,' 'Stagecoach,' 'Stagecoach.' " When people ask me why South by Southwest has succeeded the way it has, I say, 'Austin, Austin, Austin.' "
If Sundance has become an orgy of swag and celebrity, SXSW has become a more low-budget version thereof. (This year's SXSW swag bag included such humble offerings as a fake "Maxed Out" credit card, a Clif Bar brownie and a guitar pick.) It's altogether possible that, when you grab a quick between-film helping of tortilla soup at Guero's (in Austin, everybody comes to Guero's), you'll be sitting right next to Lyle Lovettwho looks just like Lyle Lovett, only sexier.
Festival-goers are likely to be as thrilled by a sighting of the hundreds of bats that fly out each evening from under the Congress Avenue bridge as they are by catching a glimpse of Ray Romano, whose "95 Miles to Go," a documentary about his stand-up comedy tour, made its world premiere here this week.
And if no one stops and gawks at "East of Havana" producer Charlize Theronthe epitome of SXSW glamour wearing skin-tight jeans tucked into black stiletto-heeled bootswhile she chats in the Paramount's sound booth, it's not because they're jaded. It's just a measure of the laid-back vibe of SXSW, and Austin itself.
""SXSW a Gift for Film Critics," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
by Philip Martin
AUSTIN, TexasWelcome to the annual "I went to the South by Southwest Film Festival and all you got was this lousy column" column.
A film festival is a time for experience rather
than reflection, and I've been running around one of
my favorite cities during one of my favorite film
festivals. Consequently, this column has been written
in fits and starts, while waiting in lines and in a
few quick runs on a laptop in a hotel between
I should also advise you that I've been re-reading
Agee on Film (in preparation for a speech I'm giving
on cinematic portrayals of American soldiers in World
War II next month) and have been reimpressed with the
timbre of the great critic's style and the clarity of
his summary judgments, especially in those old Nation
columns in which he seemed to deal with 15 films in
750 or so words. Consider yourself warned.
All of the movies I'm about to mention deserve more
comment, and they will be fully reviewed if and when
they are theatrically released to a movie theater near
you. Unfortunately most of them won’t get much of a
theatrical release, so the main reason that film
festivals are useful to amateur moviegoers — as
opposed to industry professionals — is that they
afford a chance to see such movies in the manner that
God and directors intended: in a theater, surrounded
by similarly susceptible moviegoers.
So maybe you should consider this a kind of
home-video checklist; these are some of the movies
that made an impression on me at this year's SXSW.
(Full disclosure: I saw some of them before the
festival began, some at the Toronto International Film
Festival last fall and others through DVD screeners.)
First, Maxed Out and Oil Crash, two documentaries
about, respectively, credit-card debt and energy
policy, are likely to be the most talked-about
nonfiction features to emerge from the festival. Both
are well-made, and Maxed Out is even quite funny in
parts, but I'd advise against seeing them back to back
(as I did); the cumulative effect is depressing.
KZ, British director Rex Bloomfield's harrowing,
committed and commendably lowkey present-day portrait
of the residents of the village of Mauthausen,
Austria, and the guides and visitors to the
concentration camp there, is less fun than Maxed Out
but at least as important...
by Terry Sawyer
March 15, 2006
I'm not the first person to speculate that documentaries and the Internet are the last refuges for sustained,
political argument. Bill Clinton's presidency elevated the cage-match banter of cable pundits into a primary
source of information for many, thus beginning a distinctly ideological new age in journalism. In retrospect,
that era seems a utopian fantasy. The pace of our fractured attention span has become so comically accelerated
that we burn through scandals like absent WMDs and Katrina's "unexpected" levee breech at the rate that
most crack whore's finish off $5 of rock. That's just one of the reasons that the carefully crafted
argument of Maxed Out is such a thorough treasure.
We've already seen liberalism's response to being shut out of the allegedly liberal media in form of
such documentaries as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Outfoxed. Although I laud the galvanizing intent of both films,
neither pretend to try to speak outside of their own highly partisan assumptions. However Maxed Out could
be just the documentary that reaches across the deep political divide to discuss something that nearly
every American can grasp: the endless cycle of being buried in debt.
Director James D. Scurlock, who worked on George Bush Sr.'s campaign and was voted most conservative
classmate by his fellow students at the Wharton School of Finance, is not someone who could be easily
caricatured as a lefty agitator who just hates capitalism. But Maxed Out takes a scathing look inside
the world of credit card companies and the ways in which they push their services on the people they
know are least likely to be able to afford them. It's also a critical look at the crazed underpinnings
of our consumer economy, where a woman like Beth Naef, the Vegas real-estate agent who opens the film,
can talk without irony about buying a home she can't afford, dismissing the apparent insanity with
this insight: "If you look like you make money, I guess eventually you will."
Maxed Out takes a bottom-up approach to telling this story, acquainting us with several people and their
credit horror tales and then embedding those stories into a macro-level portrait of the industry's
incestuous entanglement with the political establishment. (MBNA was George W. Bush's number-one campaign
contributor.) Perhaps the most wrenching segments come from Janne O'Donnell and Trisha Johnson, two
parents turned unlikely activists, whose children committed suicide in college after getting extended
credit with no way to pay for it, which led to an insane debt spiral. That people develop fatal moral
shame about debt is astounding in its own right when you consider that two-thirds of what most people
end up owing to creditors stems not from the principal but from extravagant fees and gouging interest.
When Scurlock turns the camera on debt collectors Robert Johnson and Chris Winkler, you see how much the
industry preys on such feelings of embarrassment and crushing levels of personal responsibility. Both men
look and talk like coke-fueled brokers, reveling in stories about calling people's neighbors in order to
get a message about their debt to them (which is legal) or harassing family members in order to create a
situation where their desire for privacy has them pressuring the debtor (also legal). These are just a
few low-life practices of credit cared companies and their cronies that Maxed Out reveals. Others include
letting a mentally disabled person sign for a loan, in squiggled block letters, and the case of Providian,
a credit card company eventually fined for its practice of holding payments several days in order to
assess late fees and raise interest rates.
Elizabeth Warren, a professor at Harvard Law School, provides much of the documentary's best analysis. She
talks of meeting with credit card companies to explain that the increase in bankruptcy filings directly
correlates to their profiling practices. If they simply refrain from extending credit to the poorest
consumers, there will be fewer bankruptcies. It probably won't surprise you to find out that they don't
care and make most of their profits trolling the economic margins looking for people willing to scrape
together minimum payments until the day they die.
Maxed Out succeeds in breathing life into abstractions, creating a powerful narrative without
straying into polemical territory. We begin to see the predatory nature of the institutions that lobbied
hard for the passage of bankruptcy "reform" with a bill written solely in their economic interests
without their having to answer so much as a single question in Congress. It complicates suspiciously
simple notions of personal responsibility by showing how American culture connects personal worth to
consumerism only to imprison the impoverished in a system of credit that's structurally similar to the
debt treadmill of sharecropping. It's reasoned but deeply emotional, a consistently compelling cockeyed
look at George Bush's "ownership society", a phrase that I now suspect means that one day most of us will
be "owned" by Citibank.
"Not So Different," The Sunday Paper
by Stephanie Ramage
July 9, 2006
A couple of years ago, filmmaker James Scurlock swung through Atlanta as he was making "Maxed Out," an award-winning indie film about America's credit culture. What he found wasn't so different from what he had seen everywhere else.
"Everywhere we wentblack or white, rich or poor, Republican or Democrateveryone is dealing with this same issue," says Scurlock. "The problem pervades everywhere."
Originally, Scurlock attributed the problem to people living beyond their means, but as he interviewed and
researched within the credit industry itself, he found that wasn't necessarily the case. Over the last 20 years,
debt has become a foregone conclusion in America. Companies count on consumers being willing to go into hock and
consumers count on doing so. Trafficking in debt has become an industry all its own as overdue bills are sold and
marketed to collection agencies that tack on high fees to accounts that consumers, obviously, already can't pay. For the consumer it makes no sense at all, but for the attorneys who have gone into business as collection agents, it's a reliable way to make a living in a country that has more law-school graduates than most non-debt-related litigation will ever require.
As the account moves from one collector to the next, the fees accrue and the consumer slides further into a pit. Thanks to the way the accounts get marketed, many of the collection agencies would need a fairly complicated flow chart to show where the debt originated. This is something they have in common with consumers.
"Most people couldn't remember getting in bad debt," Scurlock tells SP. "It was never a conscious decision. We
interviewed people going to the grocery store, paying for groceries on their credit card or paying mortgages and
medical billsall on their credit cards. These people had to use credit cards to pay for everyday living expenses."
The seduction of plastic isn't subtle, and it is thoroughly inculcated in American culture. The U.S. military hands out credit cards to its employees and credit card companies set up stands on college campuses to sign up students for credit accounts that quickly become debt accounts.
"Unfortunately that will continue," says Scurlock. "Most people see credit cards as absolute necessities. They've become ingrained in our lives like cell phones have. Debt is really a bear trap. You initially get caught and then the more you move the trapped you become. It's a mathematical reality."
"Maximum Debt," Shepherd-Express.com
by David Luhrssen
October 26, 2006
Mortgaging America's future
Americans are deep in debt. Between the demands of an increasingly expensive college education and the incessant drumbeat of consumption, the middle class has surrendered its future. Worse still is the lower class. Predator banks with gilt-edged names tempt the poor with deceptive mortgages, expensive substitutes for the low-interest federal plans designed to raise them from poverty. And don't forget check-cashing outlets, those tacky markers of urban decay run by Wells Fargo and other major institutions. Increasingly, even pawnshops are becoming chain subsidiaries of powerful banks.
Director James D. Scurlock manages to maintain a sense of humor over these and related topics in his documentary Maxed Out, yet the deceptively breezy tone can't dampen a rising tide of indignation. The occasional laughter is only the sugar making the medicine go down. Interviewing debtors of all sorts, including a National Guardsman ruined by his extended tour of duty in Iraq, as well as economists, consumer advocates and the lenders themselves, Maxed Out exposes an American Dream purchased on credit, with misleading terms and enormous penalties. Even the belligerent bill collectors have their 15 seconds of fame in Maxed Out. They love their work, describing it as "a fun industry."
Credit card issuers invested heavily in the election of George W. Bush; it's no surprise that he appointed a corrupt CEO as "ethics czar" and a Comptroller of Currency who sticks up for the banks. But politics is only the enabler for private enterprise run amok, lending institutions desiring clients who can't pay, charging them with late fees that trigger usurious interest rates. According to Maxed Out, the lenders' profit is greater from weaker candidates for credit than from financially solid citizens. Little wonder college freshmen working for minimum wage can have a dozen credit cards and debt they will never repay. Little wonder the credit card companies ghostwrote legislation restricting the one escape from debt on this side of the grave‹bankruptcy.
Perhaps Maxed Out skirts issues of individual responsibility, yet as one academic stresses in her interview, the societal pressures are daunting. Today's two-parent family has less money than its 1970 counterpart, partly from rising health costs and the necessity of two cars in a society where both spouses must work and public transit is feeble. The demands of conspicuous consumption have increased, an issue Maxed Out touches on in terms of the ugly sprawl of McMansions, often purchased according to Enron-style economics. In a humorous note, clips from a 1950s financial-instruction film for high-school students show how low American ethics have fallen. In the movie, Mr. Money, an Eisenhower-like figure, reminds his young audience that "it costs money to buy things on credit." Alas, Mr. Money has long since retired.
"Drowning in Debt," Star Telegram
by Teresa McUsic
Sept 29, 2006
Documentary looks at lending and practices of debt collectors
Consumerism has hit independent movies, in the wake of indie hits such as 2004's Super Size Me, about the fast-food industry, and this year's An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's warning about global warming.
Now comes Maxed Out, an independent film on the credit-card and collection industries made with the help of two local consumer pit bulls: advocate Bud Hibbs and attorney Jerry Jarzombek.
The film, scheduled for release next year, will have its first local preview Saturday at the Modern Art Museum. Hibbs and Jarzombek, members of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, will answer questions afterward.
Next week, a national distribution deal for the film and DVD will be announced, director James Scurlock said. Simon & Schuster will publish the companion book, which is expected to be released this winter.
The film looks at the dramatic changes in lending and collection practices since the 1980s. It focuses on real people caught in financial traps.
"I was shocked by what we found," Scurlock said. "I started the movie looking at consumerism and how we're spending too much money, but the project really transformed to how the financial industry has been baiting and hooking people for the past 25 years."
Part of that transformation, Scurlock said, came from sitting at a coffeehouse in Fort Worth two years ago with Hibbs and Jarzombek.
"I was asking around for information from a network of journalists, professors and advocates, and [Hibbs'] name kept coming up," Scurlock said.
It's easy to see why. Hibbs has been a consumer advocate in the area since his first book, Stop It!, hit the shelves. It told how to stop abusive practices by debt collectors.
He has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Today and other national talk shows. He became a regular on several major-market radio stations, including KRLD/1080 AM.
Now he's getting ready to launch a talk show with a satellite radio company that will be called Voice of the American Consumer. He's working on his third book deal, and his Web site, www.budhibbs.com, gets more than 1 million hits a week, Hibbs said.
He said his office advises consumers on a sliding scale, working at no cost for members of the military and single mothers. His staff investigates the companies behind his clients' complaints, looking for connections and flaws.
"We like to expose illegal conduct of the debt-collection industry," he said, based on provisions in the federal Fair Debt Collections Practice Act of 1978.
In the film, Hibbs says the lending and collection industries are much more predatory on consumers today than they were a generation ago.
"The bottom line is, the deck is stacked against you from Day 1," he says. "If you're smart enough to understand that and know that, God bless you. If not, boy, are they going to make a lot of money off of you."
Bankers and debt collectors have a different view.
Tracey Mills, an American Bankers Association spokeswoman, said the banking industry's credit-access expansion has had positive effects on consumers.
"There are very unfortunate stories about people who have gotten into trouble," she said. "But there are also many stories about people who benefited from credit that we hear all the time."
The collection industry, which the movie also portrays in a harsh light, does have some rogue players but overall acts ethically and legally, said Dwain James, executive director of the American Collectors Association of Texas.
James said that those who don't follow the laws find lawsuits filed against them.
Jarzombek frequently sues debt collectors. He recently sued a New York agency on behalf of a Bedford mother and daughter. According to the filing, a company employee called a neighbor and said she was working with the Bedford police to make an arrest. Relaying such a threat is illegal.
Hibbs calls the movie's portrayal of predatory lending and collection practices "the human side of debt."
Two of the victims featured are mothers whose children committed suicide after incurring substantial credit-card debt as college students. The mothers, Janne O'Donnell and Trisha Johnson, both from Oklahoma, had children at the University of Texas and the University of Central Oklahoma, respectively.
O'Donnell's son had racked up $11,000 in credit-card debt and discussed the pressure with his mother a week before his suicide. Johnson's daughter, who had $2,500 in debt, was surrounded by credit-card bills when she was found dead.
The mothers said in the movie that they were still getting credit-card offers for their kids, Scurlock said.
The Consumer Federation of America has noted that college students are a particular focus of lenders, receiving credit offers totaling tens of thousands of dollars. It has recommended that Congress restrict lenders' ability to offer credit to young people with low incomes, but no action has been taken.
Jarzombek and Hibbs said that big-name banks are resorting to predatory loan tactics that were once associated with payday lenders and pawnshops. They see it this way: The banks target customers with low incomes or debt problems, offering them credit cards with low rates that expire in a year. When the accounts become delinquent, the banks raise interest rates on the money already borrowed and collect fees. When the accounts fail, the banks sell them for pennies on the dollar to collection agencies, who often work outside the law.
Again, Mills with the ABA argues that the movie's viewpoint is not valid.
"There are very strict regulations against predatory lenders," she said. Also, "banks compete most heavily for customers with decent credit histories and scores because those are the people who will pay them back."
Jarzombek and Hibbs said Texas laws are among the best at protecting consumers against the strong-arm practices of collection agencies.
"We live in the most consumer-friendly area in the nation," Hibbs said. "They can't garnish your wages, and they can't take our houses. But people need to understand their rights."
Varsity.co.nz (New Zealand)
Maxed Out (Must See!)
James Scurlock's exploration of the vastness of the
debt that underlies the American economy is as
visceral as it is illuminating. If Scurlock is the
most alarming of commentators, it may be because he's
so well grounded in the world he describes. (He
worked on Bush, Sr.'s campaign and was voted most
conservative classmate at finance school.) His primary
subject is credit card companies and how they hook
those most likely to run up debts: the young and the
poor. Interest on debt is such a huge earner that
debt itself is a major industry, and one well
connected to the White House. The moral vacuum at the
heart of an overspending society is not lost on
Scurlock, who intersperses his encounters with
bankers, pawnbrokers and debt collectors with the
heart-wrenching testimony of their profitable victims.
"Morte a crédito", Folha de S.Paulo
by Sylvia Colombo
Da Reportagem Local
March 15, 2006
Cineasta retrata de forma trágica a compulsão dos norte-americanos por cartões de crédito
Transformar um assunto como cartões de crédito em uma comédia pode parecer algo esdrúxulo. Numa comédia
de humor negro, então, nem se fala. Mas é mais ou menos o que o jovem diretor norte-americano James Scurlock,
34, conseguiu fazer em "Maxed Out" (Chegar ao Extremo), um documentário sobre como as dívidas têm dado
sustentação ao estilo de vida da família norte-americana comum. O filme (sem previsão de lançamento no Brasil)
fez sucesso de crítica e público no South by Southwest Film Festival, em Austin (Texas), em março, e levantou
uma séria discussão sobre o modo como a economia americana tem se alimentado.
Quanto mais inteligente a pessoa é, mais vergonha sente por não entender como caiu em tal situação
Intrigado com a maneira como os norte-americanos, principalmente os mais jovens, têm sido cada vez mais
enredados em dívidas de cartões de crédito, Scurlock resolveu investigar as razões pelas quais esse pequeno
pedaço de plástico se tornou algo tão sedutor e indispensável para tanta gente, num país em que a média de
endividamento familiar com cartão de crédito chegou, em 2005, a cerca de US$ 9.300 (R$ 21 mil). Conta também
como "falidos" e "quebrados" são motivo de lucro para essas empresas. Rodado em vários pontos dos EUA, o
filme vai virar também um livro com as melhores entrevistas, a ser publicado em 2007 pela Simon & Schuster.
FOLHA: Por que decidiu fazer esse documentário? Está mais preocupado com a economia ou com o comportamento
JAMES SCURLOCK: Estou preocupado com os dois. Nos anos 1970, começamos a partir de uma economia produtiva -em que
as pessoas economizam e investem em companhias que produzem coisas, e é daí que vem o crescimento- para uma
economia consumista, em que o crescimento vem do nosso consumo de coisas que são feitas em outros lugares. Por isso
não precisamos mais de tudo aquilo que economizávamos para financiar a produção. Viramos uma
economia em que companhias fazem dinheiro financiando produtos, e não vendendo-os. Somos todos culpados, em diferentes
níveis, por pensar que esse comportamento pode continuar indefinidamente.
FOLHA: Os americanos estão sendo estimulados a criar dívidas?
JAMES SCURLOCK: Sem dúvida. Os bancos e as empresas de cartão de crédito estão vendendo
dívidas. Virou um produto como qualquer outro, exceto pelo fato de que, no caso da dívida, o abastecimento
cria mais demanda. Em outras palavras, quanto mais dívida você vende, mais pessoas precisarão dela.
Se você tem um cartão de crédito, vai precisar de outro para pagar o primeiro, aí terá
de pendurar a casa para pagar os dois e assim por diante. É um ciclo vicioso criado por essas companhias, que criaram
um produto para cada parte dele. Dívidas com juros altos tornaram-se um negócio muito rentável, especialmente
quando se adicionam taxas e multas.
FOLHA: Como foi a pesquisa para o filme?
JAMES SCURLOCK: Li muito a respeito e freqüentei o curso de finanças da Wharton School, na Universidade
da Pensilvânia. Para encontrar os personagens, procuramos na internet e nos jornais histórias reais. A filmagem durou
cerca de nove meses e foi muito difícil porque muitas pessoas não querem falar sobre falência. Há
muita vergonha e muita culpa envolvidos no tema. Ironicamente, quanto mais inteligente a pessoa for, mais culpa e vergonha
sente por não entender como foi possível cair em tal situação. Filmamos em todo o país,
e a pesquisa provou que o assunto afeta a todos. Não interessa de onde você é, se rico ou pobre,
negro ou branco, gay ou heterossexual, conservador ou liberal.
FOLHA: Você acha que suas conclusões podem ser exportadas a outros países?
JAMES SCURLOCK: Sim, porque esse é um fenômeno global. O verdadeiro tema é a disparidade de
riqueza no mundo. Alguns estão ficando muito, muito ricos e outros, muito, muito pobres. Então a
maioria das pessoas está usando cartões de crédito para preencher esse buraco -inclusive
para pagar coisas essenciais, como planos de saúde, educação, comida etc. Trata-se uma
economia global muito instável e muito desigual, e o crédito é aquilo a que as pessoas
se agarram quando estão se afogando. Acabo de ler que o número de japoneses que não têm
poupança quase dobrou em dez anos. Essa é uma grande mudança numa sociedade que costumava
se orgulhar de dizer que todos eram de classe média.
FOLHA: A criação de dívidas particulares faz a economia de um país crescer
de alguma maneira?
JAMES SCURLOCK: Com certeza. Se as pessoas estão fazendo mais e mais dívidas, elas continuam
a gastar, e isso mantém a economia em movimento. Mantém os construtores construindo, fábricas
produzindo e assim por diante. É por isso que, em princípio, parece uma panacéia, mas acaba
construindo uma engrenagem que funciona muito bem. As pessoas ficam felizes porque ainda podem aparentar pertencer
à classe média ou ter um certo nível de vida. E os bancos ficam felizes porque estão
enriquecendo. Mas, em algum ponto, começam a sufocar sob os crescentes níveis da dívida a
cada vez mais alto custo, e surgem os problemas.
FOLHA: Você diz que a dívida virou um vício. Nesse sentido, pode compará-la
a outros, como álcool, cigarro,
drogas legais ou ilegais?
JAMES SCURLOCK: No ano passado as empresas de cartão de crédito enviaram cerca de 6 bilhões
de ofertas de cartão de crédito para as casas dos norte-americanos. Isso corresponde, mais ou menos,
a 60 para cada uma.
E todos anunciam algo por nada. Zero de juros, pague depois ou o que seja. O que você acha que pode acontecer
se enviarmos 60 maços de cigarro ou 60 garrafas de vinho por ano para cada uma dessas casas? É claro que
isso vai desenvolver algum tipo de apetite por essas ofertas sedutoras, ou não?
MAXED OUT (U.S.): This absorbing, scary documentary
explores the extent and consequences of America's
"charge-it" attitude and spiraling credit-card debt.
It makes a persuasive case that the financial industry
during the past several decades has acted not just
irresponsibly and immorally but like '80s drug lords,
luring the young and unknowing into massive debt with
easy credit, making unconscionable profits off late
fees and interest payments, and corrupting the
governmental process to make sure nothing is done
about the racket. Among those interviewed are
economists, real-estate brokers, people with loved
ones driven to suicide by their debt burden, a merry
gang of strong-arm bill collectors and one bewildered
Seattle pawn-shop owner. (W.A.) Grade: B+
by Moira Macdonald
June 9, 2006
"Maxed Out": There's material for a dozen
documentaries in Seattle native James Scurlock's film,
a simultaneously entertaining and chilling examination
of consumer debt in America. An assortment of
characters flit across the screen: two mothers whose
college-age children killed themselves out of despair
over credit-card debt; a pair of cheerful
entrepreneurs busily getting rich by buying other
people's debt; a born-again financial guru; a
real-estate agent who matter-of-factly notes that she
can't afford her own McMansion. Some get short shrift,
but the film is consistently intriguing. 85 minutes.
"The EFC Review," Efilmcritic.com
SCREENED AT THE 2006 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: I've heard this flick called "the Super Size Me of credit card debt" by at least a half-dozen film festival attendees, and I suppose that's a fair enough assessment. It's certainly a smartly constructed and enjoyably informative piece of documentary filmmaking, but it also leaves out what I consider to be one crucial piece of the puzzle ... and it also gets just a bit too manipulative for a few minutes.
There's no denying that credit card debt is a huge and horrid problem here in the United States, and filmmaker James Scurlock is to be commended for trying to shed some light onto the issue. Taken as a straight cautionary tale (as in "never use credit cards, people!"), Maxed Out works quite well. The film brings you the ins & outs of credit card debt from all the appropriate angles: the card-givers, the card-users, the debt-accruers, the debt-collectors, etc.
But where's the section devoted to, y'know, personal responsibility? An alien from another planet could watch Maxed Out and walk away thinking that the banks and the credit card companies abduct people in dark allies and simply infect them with $87,000 in credit card debt. Then again, Maxed Out is a movie about what happens after a debt is established, so perhaps the "personal responsibility" angle is a topic for another film.
Another slight misstep lies late in the film. Scurlock decides, unwisely, to juxtapose a story of two grieving mothers with a story of two opportunistic debt collectors. By wedging these two sections together, the filmmaker seems to be painting with too broad a brush. The soapy sadness of one story vs. the cartoonish villainy of the other seems too on-the-nose, particularly for a doco that spends most of its time being pretty smart about things.
But there's a lot that Maxed Out gets right, from its indictment of the banks' "college kid" obsession, the ridiculously exorbitant interest rates, and the ways in which our government allows creditors to run rampant. Scurlock interviews everyone from bankers to collectors to some truly unlucky consumers who got screwed by the system through no fault of their own, all of whom contribute to a chorus that preaches the following message: "Folks, stop using your credit cards so damn much, because the problem's a whole lot bigger than you might think."
All in all, it's a solid "social issue" documentary that delivers its messages in clear, concise, and well-researched fashion. The few misgivings I have are not enough to spoil Maxed Out, a movie that just might inspire you to snip some of those credit cards in half. And if a movie can do that, it's certainly good enough to earn my recommendation.
"Eric D. Snider's 2006 SXSW Diary," Efilmcritic.com
by Eric D. Snider
March 15, 2006
...I found a city bus that would take me back to Congress Avenue and was soon at the Paramount, where a film called "Maxed Out" was to commence at 4 p.m. I found Scott and Will in line, along with David Poland of MovieCityNews.com and Tim Ryan of RottenTomatoes.com. (SXSW doesn't do press screenings, but passholders do get let into the public screenings before everyone else.) There is a noticeable dearth of newspaper critics here. Except for Joe Leydon from Variety, I've seen only online guys -- though without separate press screenings, and with everyone's badges looking about the same, it could be that I've seen print journalists and just haven't realized it. Like vampires, they walk among us.
The Paramount is a huge theater, seating something like 1,200 people, and so I was surprised to see it so full. Last night's Robert Altman premiere, sure. But a documentary no one had ever heard of? Weird.
Let me be the eighth or ninth out of what will eventually be hundreds of writers to point out that "Maxed Out" does for credit card companies what "Super Size Me" did for fast food. (The filmmakers' names are even similar. "Super Size Me" was made by Morgan Spurlock, while "Maxed Out" comes from James Scurlock.) "Maxed Out" uses humor, pathos and outrage to show how "obscenely profitable" the credit card business is (to use one expert's terminology), how wicked screwed-up the FICO scores and credit-report system is (how do they determine your credit score? It's a big fat secret!), and how the government has only made things worse for consumers. The revision of bankruptcy laws last year that makes it harder for middle-class people trapped under a mountain of debt to file for bankruptcy, even when there's no other viable option for them? That bill was written by MBNA -- the second-largest provider of credit in the country, not to mention George W. Bush's greatest campaign contributor.
There are some flaws in the film, such as using extreme worst-case scenarios to engage our emotions (people so distraught over impossible debt that they commit suicide) and a complete failure to even bring up the subject of personal responsibility. But as to its major themes, of greedy credit card companies that will issue credit to anyone; that especially pursue people they KNOW are likely to go over their limits and fail to make payments; that sit there before congressional committees and say, with straight faces, that they have systems in place to make sure only good candidates are offered credit -- well, anyone who's ever tangled with a credit card company will come out of "Maxed Out" with boiling blood and a vow to get out from under their infernal thumbs once and for all.
"SXSW: Short Reviews..," Rottentomatoes.com
by RT News
March 15, 2006
...The documentary " Maxed Out " is far more entertaining than any movie about credit card debt has any right to be. The film, yet another SXSW world premiere, looks at the ways in which credit card companies make money off those who are deepest in debt, and uses incisive interviews (including Robin Leach !), some darkly ironic clips, and straight-to-the-point statistics to make its claims. This is an informative film about an important issue."
by Scott Weinberg
March 15, 2006
Described by more than one SXSW participant as "the Super Size Me of credit card debt," Maxed Out is an entertaining, enlightening, and rather shocking expose of the way in which the credit card companies do their business. See this movie and you just might be tempted to slice your Visa card in half. Good move.
"Ain't It Cool News"
by Harry Knowles
March 12, 2006
I started my second day of the festival with a really great documentary entitled Maxed Out. In my SXSW goodie bag was a fake credit card with the film's info on it and I really thought it to be a clever marketing tool. Well, it turns out the same technique was used to draw attention to the film much earlier and caught the eye of Matt Dentler, the SXSW producer. Thank god it did, because this doc is amazing.
Maxed Out is a study of the credit card industry and credit culture that America has been living on for the past twenty years. It explores different ways that credit card companies actually make their money by supplying low-income 'targets' with easy credit and raking in the interest.
This documentary comes in at a tie as my all time favorite SXSW documentary. It's right up there with my favorite SXSW doc, A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the bowling documentary. Both films are about topics that normally would be considered 'boring' but are presented in such a way that they are entertaining throughout. Also, both of those docs are incredibly well shot. Would you really believe me if I told you the most beautiful movie I've seen so far at SXSW was a film about credit card debt? Believe it.
This is an important film and makes you reconsider applying for those easy credit cards you get twice a week in the mail. Go see it if you can.
Oh, and I've found my SXSW crush this year. Past crushes include Zoe Bell, the New Zealand stuntwoman, and the kickboxing director of Hooligans. This year's crush goes to the editor of Maxed Out. Drool. If you ever do read this, feel free to say 'hi' if you see a furry guy awkwardly staring at you. I'm not too creepy, promise.
"SXSW Notebook," Star Telegram
by Christopher Kelly
March 12, 2006
One to Watch
If there's a breakout hit at the South by Southwest Film Festival this year, it will likely be Maxed Out, an engaging and very provocative documentary about America's dangerous slide into widespread consumer debt.
The director, James D. Scurlock, isn't especially even-handed: He places almost all of the blame for the country's problematic credit card system on banks and lenders, and not on the American people and our frequent compulsion to buy things we can't afford.
But Scurlock, in a muckraking style that owes more than a bit of debt to Michael Moore, also makes some fascinating revelations, especially about the means by which credit card companies seek to perpetuate debt, and how they target (and sometimes terrorize) the American underclass.
A handful of film distribution executives were in the crowd at the world premiere screening at Paramount on Saturday afternoon, and they surely were able to smell a Super Size Me-style mini-hit in the air. Expect to hear more about Maxed Out in the coming monthsespecially once the political talk shows and radio financial gurus get wind of it.
by Jeffrey Wells
James Scurlock's Maxed Out, an expose documentary on the American debt industry that showed yeserday at
South by Southwest, " anger and saddens and calls to action all at once," says HE columnist Moises Chiullan .
"It follows the trail of the debt business through the lives of a broad range of Americans, but the killer testimony
comes from Harvard's Dr. Elizabeth Warren when she expounds upon the grave seriousness of new debt legislation
and the fact that low income consumers who are almost completely incapable of repaying are precisely the debtors
that credit companies want . Warren says she was told by a high-ranking executive in the finance industry that
bankruptcy filers are their best targets for two reasons: (1) they have a taste for credit , and (2) they can't
file for bankruptcy again. The friendliness betweek the Bush II administration and the debt industry is profound,
and explored fully in the debt legislation recently passed in addition to Bush's appointment of Larry Thompson,
a former President of Providian Financial (the Enron of creditors), as the nation's debt czar. Shortly after his
appointment, Thompson was under investigation by the Justice Department. Maxed Out is going to be one of the most
talked-about films of the festival, I'm sure. A friend says it won't be acquired because its target is influential
people with money. I respectfully disagree. People from both sides of the aisle will be all over it once it's
out and viewable."
Austin American Statesman
by John DeFore
*** (Three Stars)
A portrait of the consumer debt epidemic that is
devastating an increasing percentage of American
families, "Maxed Out" is infuriating and dispiriting,
showing that things are worse than most of us probably
believed. Viewers inclined to blame debt problems
wholly on borrowers might think twice after hearing
how lenders deliberately court those who are least
likely to be able to paythe ones who will rack up
interest and late fees, turning lenders' huge profits
into obscene ones. Then there are the horror stories
in which completely blameless citizens are ruined by
glitches in computer records of their credit. A few
smart, thoughtful voices (like Harvard law prof
Elizabeth Warren) put things into perspective, while
filmmaker James Scurlock gathers evidence that our
elected leaders are happy to stack the deck against