“It’s not all about the hype,” says the elusive graffiti artist Banksy in “Exit Through the Gift,” speaking about his illegal practice in the edgy documentary that he also directed. According to the brains behind its distribution, however, hype was essential to the movie’s success.
During a panel held Saturday at the daylong workshop “Distribution U.” in NYU’s Cantor Film Center, “Exit” distributor Richard Abramowitz of Abramorama and marketer Marc Schiller of Electric Artists elaborated on the keen city-by-city campaign that led to the movie’s box office triumph in limited release. (To date, it has grossed around $3.2 million screening in cities around the country.) “This was one of the rare times where digital marketing and distribution were sitting at the same table,” Schiller said.
Although “Exit” first gained exposure with its surprise inclusion at the Sundance Film Festival, neither Abramowitz nor Schiller became involved with the release until after the festival. Abramamowitz, whose other recent distribution credits include “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” and “Best Worst Movie,” even confessed that he had not heard of Banksy prior to the movie and didn’t see it at the festival.
Instead, he first encountered it through Cinetic sales agent John Sloss, who managed to interest Abramowitz in the movie with the form of grassroots distribution strategy he has implemented in the past. But once Abramowitz came onboard, Sloss kept tightening the prep time, asking Abramowitz if he could release the movie in eight, then six, and finally four weeks. That’s when the distributor called Schiller, a former street artist who allegedly knows Banksy, to help figure out the right approach for a release. Earlier this year, Schiller came under fire for not disclosing his professional involvement in the “Exit” marketing campaign, but he has since admitted otherwise.
The biggest challenge the duo encountered was the absence of a director on hand to fill promotional needs, since Banksy derives much of his allure from consistent anonymity. They also lacked a star: “Exit” focuses on the exploits of eccentric Banksy fan Thierry Guetta, whose obsession with street art eventually led him to rip off the practice for his own gallery dalliances under the quirky persona of Mister Brainwash. Some viewers suspect Guetta is a fictional creation of Banksy used for satirical purposes, but the real centerpiece of the movie involves the very real craft of street art, so Abramowitz and Schiller took their cues from that built-in appeal.
At Sundance, the late-in-the-game programming of “Exit” and the mysterious appearance of Banksy artwork on Park City’s Main Street helped overcome the lack of a central figure for promotional purposes. “That was out of necessity,” says Schiller. They decided to replicate that approach for each major city where the film screened: Banksy art appeared ahead of the opening dates, generating enough local buzz to repeatedly drive up interest in the movie. “We knew he was going out there to do stuff,” Abramowitz said. Schiller added: “Digital does not happen without it happening in the real word first. We went offline long before going online.”
By playing up the curiosity factor, they lured a general moviegoing audience rather than focusing exclusively on the hip, young and street art-savvy skateboarding types. “If we marketed this film to that crowd, it would have been a disaster,” Schiller said. “The key is to make your movie part of a broad dialogue. It wouldn’t have worked if we had marketed it to kids.”
At the same time, the appeal to DIY artists did not go ignored. Abramowitz said it took one call to Landmark Theaters to set up screenings around the country, and many of the early audiences were those specifically interested in the subject matter. “I worked very hard with Richard to make sure the screenings were created so that musicians sat with filmmakers, writers and graffiti vandals,” Schiller said. “We announced the diversity at the screenings.”
They encouraged that core audience to help create an initial foundation for the movie’s burgeoning popularity. When viewers reviewed the film on YouTube, they received a poster for the film. Schiller said its Facebook page, which currently has more than 30,000 fans, played an important role as well. “Facebook is better than any website, if you use it right,” Schiller said. “I don’t believe in websites too much anymore.” That explains the trimmed-down site for “Exit,” which only lists the theaters showing the film, a five-minute clip, and the image of the DVD, which comes out in the U.S. on December 14th (following the VOD and iTunes releases on November 23rd).
The online presence for “Exit” emerged organically from screening reactions rather than from marketing content. “We didn’t want to do marketing about marketing,” Schiller said. “Everything we did reinforced watching the movie.” By the time it opened in its fifth city, he said, demand was huge.
The $3 million-plus gross continues to grow: “Exit” is currently playing in Santa Fe, New Mexico and opens next week in Potsdam, New York. Meanwhile, Abramowitz has launched an awards campaign. “The instinct would be to publicize the hell out of it,” Schiller said, comparing the conventional approach with the temperament of his evasive artist friend. “He didn’t want to do that. You let people get behind the movie — that’s Banksy.”