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How ‘Dear White People’ Grabbed Young Moviegoers

How 'Dear White People' Grabbed Young Moviegoers

They picked up this exploration of millennial race identity at a predominantly white Ivy League college at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film won a prize for best breakthrough talent. This weekend “Dear White People” grossed $344,136 in 11 theaters (including some sellout shows) with a rousing per screen average of $31,285. (Our Sundance feature here.)
How did Roadside Attractions manage to grab an audience that was nearly 80% under 40, and 29% in their early 20s?  They designed a marketing campaign with a heavy emphasis on colleges and social media, aimed at a broad swath of moviegoers. That made sense, given that the film was able to get made based on former LA marketer Simien’s viral videos. The project started out as a provocative concept trailer that went viral in 2012 on Twitter (@dearwhitepeople), Facebook, Vimeo, crowd-funding site Indiegogo (which raised $40,000) and YouTube. This provided investors with reasons to back the rookie filmmaker’s first feature. Simien had written the script but started in 2011 and 2012 to concept test “Dear White People” with “Don’t touch my hair,” which gained traction on Twitter. 

Simien built up a solid following for the film–which opens a window into a new discussion of race for a younger generation who are growing up with Beyonce and Barack Obama–that could easily be tapped by Roadside. They dropped the teaser trailer via the film’s YouTube page and it went viral. They grew the Facebook community from 10,000 to 300,000 with exclusive content created by Simien, such as “The More You Know (About Black People)” PSA videos, which scored 2.35 million total views. The writer-director and key cast did heavy PR with a multi-city tour, university screenings from Harvard to many black colleges and universities, and appearances on The Colbert Report, 106 & Park, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell and more.

Besides the usual arthouse key screens, Roadside opened the film in seven additional theaters (one in Los Angeles, three each in Atlanta and Washington) targeting the African American audience. Next weekend “Dear White People” will jump to 350 theaters in 75 markets.
Roadside co-presidents Howard Cohen and Eric d’Arbeloff are running their specialty label–co-owned by frequent distribution partner Lionsgate–with taste and smarts. They have a handle on what will work in the the specialty theatrical market, when to go day-and-date with VOD, and when to chase an Oscar campaign that can cost more than it’s worth. (They did well with Oscar nominations for “Winter’s Bone” and Jennifer Lawrence, “Biutiful” and Javier Bardem, and “Albert Nobbs” and Glenn Close, among others.) Also on their upcoming slate are Cannes pick-ups “The Homesman” (partnered with Saban Entertainment), starring director Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank, and Canadian Oscar submission “Mommy,” from Montrealer Xavier Dolan. 

They’re geared to figuring out new ways to grab moviegoers who aren’t the typical senior arthouse crowd. With “Dear White People,” says Cohen, “we’re really excited about how it’s playing. That’s what independent movies are all about. It’s a satire of race relations on an Ivy League-type campus…It’s both provocative and really, really funny; we’ve released a teaser and a trailer online, and the reactions are both positive and, like, crazy. It had a million and a half hits on YouTube in, like, a day. Half of them were, ‘I can’t wait to see this,’ and half of them were, ‘How dare they call a movie Dear White People?’” 

The movie is “a real test of our ingenuity,” admits Cohen. “We’re going to experiment and see who goes, where, and how. It’ll be very interesting… The web has changed the movie business, where everything is instantaneous. The web is always hungry for the new and the different…Why ‘Dear White People’ is really exciting is the next generation. Are we training a group of young people who don’t have the habit of going to the movies? Not if there are good movies being made, because there are good movies being made…That’s the big challenge facing us: are we still encouraging people — however we do it, by the quality of the films, by how we release them — and in what configurations are we encouraging people?”

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