If you think summer blockbuster movies deliver big dollar figures, wait until Travelers' new documentary comes out Aug. 25.
It's not that it will make a lot of money. It's free and will air on public television. But the subject of the film is a gargantuan number — $15.87 trillion and climbing, which is the national debt as of this week. That's more than $50,000 per every American alive.
"Federal debt is already so big this is going to necessitate commitment from everybody," The Travelers Cos. Chairman and CEO Jay Fishman said in an online video segment from the film.
The one-hour documentary, "Overdraft," features big names: Bill Clinton; Gov. Mitch Daniels, R-Indiana; Mayor of Newark, N.J., Cory Booker; Time magazine columnist Joe Klein; Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad as well as business executives, think-tank directors and people from various backgrounds in government and economics.
It's funded for an undisclosed price by The Travelers Institute, the property-casualty insurer's public-policy arm. The film will be distributed by WTVI-TV, public television in Charlotte, N.C., to public TV stations across the nation. After a private screening in Charlotte last month, the Charlotte Observer called it "a horror movie for smart people."
"When I sat down to watch it, I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is going to be a really heavy and dark-cloud kind of thing for an hour,' and it was not," said Elsie Garner, executive director at WTVI-TV. "It was presented interestingly enough with enough visual aids. In one scene, there's a guy with a chainsaw cutting up a huge, round pie-chart sculpted out of ice. And he said, 'This much of the national debt is debt service, and this amount is entitlements and, so, as he removed each chunk with a chainsaw, it was a very interesting and graphic portrayal. It wasn't depressing at all."
The film elevates a highly politicized topic about two months before a Nov. 6 election in which the White House, along with many U.S. Senate and U.S. House seats, are up to voters to decide. Travelers insists, however, that the film is not intended to push a Democrat or Republican agenda. It is meant to raise the public's awareness of the national debt.
"As we think about long-term, structural issues in the economy, this issue, by far, was the number one issue to be concerned about for our business and for, frankly, all the people we insure around the country: the small businesses and the medium-sized businesses," said Joan Woodward, president of the Travelers Institute. "The issue being just the long-term unsustainability of the deficit and the debt in the country. As a macro-economic indicator, you really can't ignore it."
Travelers did not have any editorial oversight of the content of the film, which was produced by Scott Galloway of Susie Films, a company that has produced 650 programs for ABC, the History Channel, A&E, Court TV, ESPN, Food Network, HGTV and the Travel Channel.
"These aren't things that can be fixed in election cycles, and the question is, 'Do we have the political leadership that is willing to invest that way?'" Fishman says in a trailer for the movie as he poses in Washington D.C. with the White House in the background.
The film won't be available to the public until late August. Whether or not it is broadcast in Connecticut, it will be available Aug. 25 through the Travelers Institute website, http://www.travelersinstitute.org. Segments of the film are available for viewing now.
"I've been a remarkable beneficiary of the American opportunity," Fishman says in an online segment of the film available on the institute's website. "My grandmother was sent here at 13 years of age by herself from Russia because she could sew. And she ultimately sent back enough money to bring her parents and then her brothers and sisters over. And how can you not feel coming out of that a deep responsibility to be involved?"
Former New Hampshire Governor and U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican, said, "We're going to pass on to our kids a less prosperous nation where they'll have a lower standard of living, a massive debt that they can't afford to pay off and therefore a less secure a nation."
Also in the documentary, former U.S. President Clinton says, "A lot of the Democrats are mad because they say, 'Well, this is mostly caused by the Republicans who cut taxes and increased spending.' The problem for the Democrats is that, if you look at the next 10 years, most of it will be caused by things we care about."