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Don’t Feed the Trolls: How Armenian Genocide Drama ‘The Promise’ Responded to an Internet Hate Campaign

It can happen even when a movie stars Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale. Here's what filmmakers can do to combat an online smear campaign.

Oscar Isaac The Promise

Oscar Isaac in “The Promise”

Jose Haro

This weekend marks the moment of truth for “The Promise,” when Open Road Films’ $100 million love story set against the Armenian genocide of World War I will open on 2,000 screens. Directed by Terry George, best known for directing 2004’s “Hotel Rwanda,” the film follows a romantic triangle between an Armenian medical student (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian artist (Charlotte Le Bon) and an American photojournalist (Christian Bale).

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Early critics’ reviews of the film have been very mixed, and in the seven months since the movie’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a campaign of Armenian genocide deniers have attacked the movie by voting down its scores on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. While online ratings can reflect honest opinion, more than 60,000 online accounts gave “The Promise” the lowest possible score on IMDb the day after its Toronto premiere — when the only people who had actually seen the film were in the festival audience, which gave the film a standing ovation.

“It wasn’t very smart of them to do that the day after,” said producer Mike Medavoy. “It makes absolutely no sense.” While Medavoy added that the controversy could wind up raising awareness for both the Armenian genocide and the movie, online smear tactics can also taint a film’s reputation.

“For some consumers, seeing a ‘false’ one-star review may keep them away,” Open Road Films senior VP of digital marketing Matt Lipson said in email to IndieWire. “It shouldn’t be the case, but the nature of the web can sometimes facilitate this kind of attack.”

Charlotte Le Bon as Ana Khesarian and Christian Bale as Chris Myers in The Promise. Directed by Terry George.

Charlotte Le Bon and Christian Bale in “The Promise”

Jose Haro

On March 10, Paladin released “The Ottoman Lieutenant” which, like “The Promise,” was set during World War I and focused on a love story between an American nurse and a Turkish officer. That film portrays the Armenian carnage not as an act of genocide but as a simple consequence of war, mirroring the official position of the current Turkish government.

In an interview with IndieWire, “The Promise” producer Eric Esrailian, the great-grandchild of Armenian genocide survivors, called “The Ottoman Lieutenant” a “denialist film basically funded by the government of Turkey.” All proceeds from “The Promise,” which was wholly financed by late Armenian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, will go to charitable organizations.

It’s unlikely that “The Promise” will suffer at the box office from the earlier release of “The Ottoman Lieutenant;” that film opened on just 200 screens and earned a 26 Metascore. “The Promise” stands a greater risk from the thousands of online trolls, but here’s three lessons from how the filmmakers responded.

Don’t feed the trolls.

Instead of drawing attention to the online smear campaign, production company Survival Pictures ignored the negative ratings and forged ahead with the marketing as if it didn’t exist. “You can’t stop people from going on social media and organizing campaigns to either up-vote things or down-vote things,” Esrailian said. He added that many online comments attacking the film were clearly identifiable as coming from trolls rather than people who have actually seen the movie. “It’s clear when someone says, ‘F Armenia’ or ‘hate Armenians.’ That doesn’t look like a review.”

Find partners who will spread a positive message.

Survival Pictures launched a #KeepThePromise social campaign and found a long list of allies to share online videos spreading the truth about the Armenian genocide, without mentioning the denialist agenda.

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Have faith in quality storytelling.

One reason Esrailian said he isn’t concerned about the low scores on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes is audience test scores for “The Promise” were strong and a much better indicator of how a film will ultimately be received.

“We’ve tested it in so many different ways with so many random audiences that we feel confident that if people see the film, they can appropriately rate the movie,” he said. He added that he views the IMDb and Rotten Tomato scores as a “badge of honor” that speaks to the power of “The Promise” to spread awareness about the Armenian genocide. “If the film was terrible, the denialists and human rights abusers would just leave it alone.”

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