Getting a Buzz On: Word-of-Mouth For Indies -- "Napolean Dynamite," "Super Size Me," "Robot Stories" and Others
by Rania Richardson
It's a lucky film that's blessed with both box office success and stellar critical acclaim. Often a film falls into either the category of "crowd pleasing," with broad audience appeal, or "critical darling," beloved by critics but too specialized or difficult to attract a large audience. One marketing strategy used by many independent distributors to put the word out for their crowd pleasers is to screen them for groups, both highly selective and general, to prompt word-of-mouth recommendations by the participants to their friends.
"From the Sundance Film Festival we had an indication that 'Napoleon Dynamite' would be a film that audiences really responded to," said Breena Camden, Fox Searchlight's EVP of publicity and promotion. "We saw it with our own team, as they used Napoleon's expressions in conversation-- 'sweet' and 'IDIOT!' and realized they had the same response as the general audience."
That information led to Fox Searchlight's biggest word-of-mouth screening campaign to date, with 350 screenings in 62 markets. Audiences in Phoenix, Dallas, and unsurprisingly Salt Lake City (the director and lead actor are Mormon) were especially enthusiastic about the film. That film has already earned almost $16 million at the box office since opening earlier this summer.
The company executed a similar program for last year's "Bend It Like Beckham," and found it effective for a film with "multiple and repeat audiences." Since free screenings can put a dent in the box office gross for a film, some distributors limit the number, to avoid cannibalizing their audience. For Camden, "The question of how many screenings are too many is always a delicate balance. You can be more liberal if people go more than once and bring their friends, because you are touching a small portion of the film going audience.
Michael Silberman, president of IDP Distribution, has similar parameters for screenings. "They need to be tailored to a film that will benefit -- a 'talkaway' where the audience is going to expand. They need to be films that appeal to audiences. The ones that carry serious messages don't do as well, or if they're grim or too dark."
IDP, which handles distribution duties for Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions, the two companies that acquired "Super Size Me" together at Sundance this, held multiple screenings for the film. According to the film's director, Morgan Spurlock, "The screenings were good to prove that the film was more than a stunt." He noticed that audiences left with positive feelings because their expectations were exceeded. They came in thinking there wouldn't be more than a chronicle of his 30-day McDonald's diet and came out with more to talk about.
IDP saw that young audiences loved "Super Size Me," but suspected that older audiences would enjoy it too, so the film was booked into Sunday morning screening programs and classes that attract older viewers, such as Richard Brown's class at New York University and Harlan Jacobson's classes in various cities such as Palo Alto, Chicago, Philadelphia and Toronto. "People in these classes tend to be more verbal than most and will champion a film they like," said Silberman. The film has earned more than $11 million during its theatrical release.
According to Amanda Lundberg, EVP of worldwide publicity at Miramax, these screenings are good when you're having a hard time getting the press to pay attention to your film, since the press focuses on studio films, stars, summer hits and holiday films. "Screenings are good for smaller films with lesser known actors -- people won't have a magazine to tell them to go -- they'll hear from their friends to go," she said.
Those who spend their time meeting and speaking to people are prime word-of-mouth builders, so Miramax has even held screenings for concierges and showings for hairdressers. "There is no limit to the number," she continued, stating that a couple of hundred screenings in 2 - 300 seat houses as the norm, "You only see an upside."
The company's Italian-language film "The Best of Youth" (bumped to a 2005 release) is not a good candidate for extensive screenings, according to Lundberg. "They work best when audiences love the film and critics don't." "Best of Youth" has gotten great reviews in the U.K., where the film has already opened, and early U.S. reviews are also positive. The unusually long (6 hour) film is another deterrent to pre-opening screenings. "Word-of-mouth screenings would not work for foreign art-house films," she said, "The audience is already self-selective."
Fox Searchlight's "The Dreamers," was cited by Camden as a film that would not appeal to the whole population due to its NC-17 rating, so it was not a candidate for word-of-mouth screenings. "But we screened it for the press, and they appreciated it," she said.
Screenings for targeted groups with a vested interest in a subject matter can supplement those for general audiences. "Super Size Me" was screened for health and education professionals and the business press who might be interested in how the film might affect McDonald's bottom line. This strategy can generate publicity off the entertainment pages -- in health, lifestyle, and business sections in this case -- and produce champions outside the film world.
For Roadside Attractions' upcoming "Tying the Knot," a documentary that looks at gay marriage, there will be screenings for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), and other supportive organizations. In addition, a screening will be held for delegates during the Republican National Convention. Co-president Howard Cohen said, "We hope that minds will be changed on the issue, or at least to open a debate." Controversy gets people talking about a film.
HBO's VP of corporate affairs, Michelle Boas uses such promotional screenings to reach an audience that may not be aware of the cable station's programming for the small screen. She looks to partners to fill the room with the "right" people -- "key influencers and noisemakers" and to share costs.
She said that many screenings and openings are held in Washington, D.C., because issue-oriented programs, especially HBO's documentaries, have relevance for the "movers and shakers" on Capitol Hill. This includes "Last Letters Home," readings of letters home from soldiers who died in Iraq, which will premiere in a theater on the Hill before its Veterans Day cable airing. Invitations will go to members of Congress and veterans associations. Along with producing partner, The New York Times, the company will hold local screenings to honor those who perished. Regional screenings are important to generate local news, according to Boas.
Intrepid self-distributing filmmaker Greg Pak has proven that it's not necessary to have a staff of marketers and publicists to get the word-of-mouth going. His "Robot Stories" website offers fans instructions on how to help the film's outreach DIY-style, with "field trip" screenings for local groups or clubs. The site also suggests that fans hold events just before the film opens in a new market, where Pak himself may be able to attend. He lists topics, such as digital filmmaking, multicultural casting, and classic sci-fi influences, to focus the discussion.
Word-of-mouth, according to Silberman, "is the most effective way of going to the movies. Every ad claims a film is the biggest or best -- whatever! Between online, mainstream, and alternative press you can find someone who likes the film and quote them in an ad. And more than critics, people trust friends and colleagues for recommendations."