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What the Obama Campaign Can Tell Us about Grassroots Film Outreach

What the Obama Campaign Can Tell Us about Grassroots Film Outreach

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

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.


From our interview with Jeremy Bird, it is clear that filmmakers have 3 main disadvantages compared to political campaigns: 1) In film it is hard to access data and it is not clear what data sources will be most effective for targeting audiences, 2) You need experts that can interpret and use data to create models and 3)
Models have to be customized to a specific campaign and this takes a
lot of money and resources that independent filmmakers do not have.

However, Bird also recalled that when he first worked for the Obama
campaign as the Field Director of South Carolina during the primary,
they had to build their network and entire operation from scratch like
many independent filmmakers when distributing their films. Bird went on
to highlight 4 best practices from the campaign that filmmakers could
adapt to distribute their movies.

1) Empowering volunteers by sharing access to more data and giving them real responsibility.
Bird stressed that volunteers form the foundation of any true
grassroots organization and need to be motivated through a sense of
trust, responsibility and ownership. One of the major reasons the Obama
campaign was able to effectively collect data and target persuadable
voters was because organizers recruited an army of volunteers to call
and knock on doors to figure out who in the universe were supporters.
Without volunteers on the ground to collect information about voters,
the data team would have had a far less accurate model of targeting
persuadable voters.  This can only be done by giving real responsibility
to volunteers and making them understand they are an integral part of
the campaign.

2) Organizing consumer data to target potential supporters of a film.
This can be the starting point for creating a data set of supporters
for a specific film. For example, Bird mentioned the Obama campaign was
able to look at consumer data and determine that someone who drove a
Prius car is environmentally friendly and therefore a likely Obama
supporter. The same type of modeling could be helpful for independent
film, i.e. someone who liked the cult film Blue Velvet might also want to see another cult film like, Donnie Darko.  Examining consumer information further, someone who subscribes to Filmmaker Magazine or the Sundance Channel are avid indie movie goers and far more likely to want to see your independent film compared to the average consumer.

3) Creating multiple narratives about your film that market to both broad and niche audiences. The Obama campaign was very creative in forming many sub constituency groups like, Students for Obama, Latino’s for Obama and Veterans for Obama
just to name a few. These constituency groups helped attract a diverse
range of supporters by making them feel included. At the same time, the
Obama campaign used messaging like “Change We Can Believe In” to appeal
to a broad audience. In contrast, filmmakers often limit themselves by
trying to decide if they should market their film as a story that
appeals to the masses or only small niche audiences. The example of the
Obama campaign suggests filmmakers might not have to chose and should
market to both mainstream and specific groups. For example, filmmakers
could cut multiple trailers of their film, one that appeals to the
mainstream and other trailers that focus on certain themes that appeal
to specific niche groups.

4) Using commit cards to motivate audiences to opt-in to watching your film at home.
The Obama campaign increased the turnout of sporadic Democrats, people
who have a poor record of voting; by asking them fill out commit cards
that were eventually mailed back to their house to remind them they
committed to voting. The same strategy could be used to motivate
audiences to watch a film at their home. Filmmakers could create a sense
of urgency around signing commit cards by sharing goals for number of
VOD rentals, or hits on YouTube. For example, “commit to watching ‘Glory at Sea
March 30th, and help us break our goal of 10,000 views.” Once someone
signs an online commit card to watch a film on a certain date, it would
then be sent back to them in an email to remind them of their commitment
to see the film.


At the end of the interview, Jeremy Bird explained that with digital media the Obama campaign was trying to

“Create our own channel. When you have 20 million people
on your email list, you’re no longer reliant on the establishment. We
weren’t scared of things that were said about us in the bubble world
because we had our own mechanism to distribute information.”

We have studied many independent filmmakers that have created their
own distribution channels in order to overcome the established
marketplace of Hollywood. However, many of these filmmakers are at a
huge disadvantage from the start since there is no organization that can
provides them with the necessary data, resources and knowledge they
need to run an effective film campaign.

In contrast, political candidates can hire companies like 270 Strategies for consulting advice, and organizations like OFA and the DNC
already have large voter databases and email lists they can tap in
order to build their campaigns. This makes us wonder if a similar
consulting firm like 270 Strategies or an umbrella hub like Organizing
for Action, might be helpful for the film world.

However, how would the organization build its email lists and tap
into data sources that independent filmmakers could use to grow and
target their audiences? Would the organization consist mostly of
people in the film industry, or people from the non-profit and community
organizing world? We plan to explore these questions in later posts.

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