Chicago Tribune

Consumers owe debt of thanks to films

Louis R. Carlozo, July 17, 2007

Though I'm not used to thinking of the Federal Reserve in a DVD context, this week seems especially apt.

The Fed just reported that consumer debt climbed an alarming annual rate of 6.4 percent in May. Lest you fall prey to fuzzy math, let's put that in perspective: Debt jumped nearly six times April's rate, according to the Associated Press. And if you narrow it down to credit card spending, May's increase was almost 10 percent -- compared with 0.2 percent the month before.

The result? The biggest credit card debt jump in six months, one that fooled even those scholarly economist types who predicted consumer borrowing would rise a mere $6.5 billion. Instead, it shot up some $13 billion, bringing our debt load to $2.44 trillion -- a record.

So if you're off to tack another charge onto that triple-platinum Visa with the six-digit credit line, consider a step in the right fiscal direction. Two recent DVDs examine our nation's debt addiction and what can be done to stem it.

James D. Scurlock's 'Maxed Out' (Magnolia Home Entertainment, $26.98) has earned kudos not only from traditional movie-reviewing outlets but also the Wall Street Journal. A special jury prize winner at the 2006 South by Southwest Film Festival, "Maxed Out" is a cutting, cautionary tale about the bad borrowing practices Americans fall prey to -- such as paying only the minimum amount on a credit card bill while interest charges pile up -- and the predatory tactics of a credit industry that targets the destitute, young, uninformed -- even the previously bankrupt, who make great customers if you're trying to make a killing through ultra-high interest loans.

Scurlock finds that fine balance between humor and tragedy, and while his subject matter might sound like the stuff of banking ledgers, "Maxed Out" comes alive through its colorful subjects. These run the gamut from the pawnbroker who caters to insolvent yuppies to experts such as Harvard Business School economics professor Elizabeth Warren, who warns that "consumer lending is obscenely profitable." It also can be tragic, as the film examines some borrowers driven to suicide by their debt despair.

If Scurlock's last name sounds like Spurlock -- as in Morgan Spurlock, the brains behind "Super Size Me" -- "Maxed Out's" director has acknowledged the fast-food film's investigative-comic approach influenced him. The topic of debt also got a little too close for comfort; according to Variety, Scurlock nearly "maxed out" his own credit cards to finance his documentary.

Danny Schechter's 'In Debt We Trust' (Disinformation Company, $19.98) covers similar turf: The Orlando Weekly compared it to "Super Size Me" as well. An Emmy-winning journalist, Schechter draws inspiration from Robert Manning's book "Credit Card Nation," and like him, takes a hard look at how the credit explosion has affected young Americans. (Manning also served as an adviser to the film.)

"Debt" also points the finger at the Bush administration, claiming that it has colluded with lobbyists and credit card companies to deregulate the lending industry -- and encourage a culture of credit dependency where house foreclosures have become shockingly common. One former major bank economist dubs it "modern serfdom."

Even soldiers in Iraq are not immune, apparently. "Debt" visits a military base to show how that group has been victimized en masse by payday lenders.

Though separate films, "Maxed Out" and "In Debt We Trust" speak with a singular voice concerning our debt crisis. To watch them is to realize how it's all happening before our eyes, thanks to our complacency, cooperation and hunger for lifestyles and luxuries we simply can't afford.

Streaming update

Now that companies such as Netflix, Wal-Mart,, iTunes and Movielink have dipped more than just a toe into the movie streaming-download waters, you might well wonder: Are my DVDs obsolete?

Not just yet. It's going to take a number of developments -- broader Internet bandwidth and consumer acceptance among them -- for streamed and downloaded movies to reach a critical mass, experts say.

"We're still in the near term, but we know in the long term that the technology is going to radically transform the business," says Phil Leigh, president and founder of Inside Digital Media, an industry market research firm in Tampa.

Leigh predicts that eventually, "our children will think it's odd that we once got in a car and drove to a store to get a movie we wanted to see." The point when Web sites begin to gain the upper hand over DVDs is still two years away, he adds.

That said, I wouldn't underestimate the "shelf pride" that comes with having a disc library you can display in your den. To be sure, the rise of Internet-based movies will prove a boon to clutter chasers everywhere. But it's hard to show off your collection of noir films and that complete "M*A*S*H" box set on a screen saver.

Out next week on DVD: "Benson" (Season 1), "The Bourne Files" collection, "Hard Boiled," "The Host," "The Monster Squad," "The Number 23," "Perfume," "The Rainmaker," "Renaissance," "Slow Burn," "Snoop Dogg's Hood of Horror," "Spawn: Animated Collection," "Star Trek Fan Collective: Captain's Log," "Tales From the Crypt" (Season 6), "Weeds (Season 2)," "Zodiac"


Got a DVD question or quandary? Write to Louis R. Carlozo at Include your name and hometown and your question could wind up in a future On the Small Screen column.


This story ran on Chicago Tribune on July 17, 2007.