Jeremy Bird
Jeremy Bird

As part of his NYU Cinema Research Institute fellowship, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" producers Michael Gottwald and Josh Penn are trying to use his experience with the Obama campaign to figure out how the political world's outreach tactics in a digital age can help indie filmmakers.  As part of their research, the team spoke to Obama 2012 National Field Director Jeremy Bird about his tactics and how they might apply to indie film.  See the interview on page one and see analysis from Gottwald, Penn and research associate Carl Kriss on page two.  Read more about Gottwald and Penn's research on their NYU CRI blog.

READ MORE: 5 Tips for Grassroots Film Distribution from Producers of 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

What are the essential grassroots elements of the Obama campaign that you think can be translated to other industries like film. Is it going against an establishment, is it about empowering people, is it structure…What makes something a true grassroots operation?

1) Access to data and information.

That seems like something that just everybody does but people didn’t do that before. They would give access to their staff…but they wouldn’t give access to data and information down to the individual volunteer.

2) Real responsibility and goals at the local level.

Instead of saying here’s a packet call these people it’s, ‘let me talk to you about how we’re going to win your neighborhood and I want you to be a member of the team that’s going to do that.’ Now you’re going to do tactics, you’re going to do specific tasks but I’m going to think of you as someone who is responsible for this instead of someone who’s just going to do something because I tell you to.

3) The ability to scale and make your campaign accessible.

Ultimately what you’re trying to do is have people talking to people individually face to face as much as possible. You can’t do that if you’re centralizing the whole operation in D.C., Chicago or a different place.

4) A fundamental philosophy that volunteers can change the outcome.

I think the big difference starting in 2008 is that Plouffe and other people really believed that volunteers had the ability to change the outcome. So it all starts with that kind of philosophy and what you want to give people at the local level.

In the film world there is a stunning lack of data about who is going to see what and how they are seeing it and that creates a problem immediately from a grassroots perspective. Have you ever had an experience where there is very little awareness about the candidate or issue and you’re starting from total scratch to see where they’re at? How do you handle a situation like that?

When I first got to South Carolina no one knew who we were and no one knew how to pronounce our name so we did everything. We paid for TV ads, we did mail, we hired organizers on the ground to up our name idea, the full gamut of everything digital etc.


If you were trying to figure out who is most likely to go see an indie film for example as opposed to a Hollywood film, you want to figure out how big of a universe you need to talk to who tell you ‘yeah I like independent film’ and how can you build a model to say other people who look like them are likely to like independent film using a data set that you have on folks. You know we have it on voter file a lot of other people have it on consumer information.

But really, if somebody in Ohio had told us in 2010 that they supported Governor Strickland, that superceded any other piece of information we could ever get on them. It didn’t matter what car they drove, it didn’t matter where they lived, it didn’t matter what race they were…If they had told us in our worst year that they supported a Democratic candidate they were going to vote for Barack Obama.

The question is how do you actually ask people in some scalable way what movie they like to watch or what they like to eat or these things you want to know about them and then ask enough people that question that you can then build a model.

A lot of filmmakers are stuck wondering if they should try to sell their film appealing to the broadest number of people possible like ‘this is a film that everyone can embrace’ or if they should try to target and isolate the audience that might like their film specifically. In your experience is it smarter to break up the audience and go after targeted constituencies or is it smarter to appeal to the broader elements of your candidate?

Both. You have to have an overarching narrative that appeals to the largest audience possible, especially in a political campaign, then within that frame you figure out what are the things you really want to stress with specific constituencies…you want to have a broad narrative that ties it all together but then you want to highlight actually specific pieces for constituency to really speak to the issues that really matter to them. So I think it’s both.

MG: Have you ever had to do a campaign where people had to take action at home? That’s sort of a thing we have to deal with when it comes to people renting a movie on a certain day.

That’s what we did for bad voting Democrats, sporadics. We called it commitment cards, or basically an ‘I’m in’ program. We would go to them and say, ‘do you commit to voting on Election Day?’ and have them fill out a card either online or in person saying ‘I will commit to vote.’ We wanted to know that they lived there still, that all the data was right but also that they were going to turn out.

The best was in Ohio we would send them back the card they actually filled out with their own handwriting reminding them that they committed to vote. In the states that did that in 2010, it upped turnout by like 4 to 7 points because people were reminded of something they previously committed to.

Read more about Gottwald's takeaways from his conversation with Bird.