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“The Making of a Grassroots Movement” is a series of posts that are meant to serve as a case study on transmedia marketing and social engagement and distribution for an independent film called Grassroots. This is blog number 2 — for introductions and context, check out blog 1.

To meet our transmedia marketing and outreach goals for Grassroots, we divided our strategy into four areas of focus: Exhibition, Education, Opportunity and Partnerships. The first area – exhibition – was the segment that we needed to address right away: We needed a release date so we could gear everything else (marketing, outreach, education, social campaign…) towards getting people to see the film, when it came out.

Our first efforts to this end were centered squarely around four-walling the movie – renting theatres in major markets for a DIY run (the week run was because typically film reviewers won’t cover a film that is playing less than a week in a given city). But, as time progressed and our campaign grew steam, the hopes for the film started to grow. People involved in the movie felt that it would behoove the film to at least try for a big distribution sale, and all the DIY distribution plans quickly came under scrutiny.

Stephen Gyllenhaal – the film’s director – wanted to get the film in theatres around the 2012 election season, ideally around the New Hampshire primaries in February. If we were going to give the film a chance at a real release, we still wanted to have a February DIY release date as a backup. To do that, we needed to get through the process of getting the sales agents on board, the distributor screenings, the festival inclusions and the potential offers from buyers in double time.

All the balls were thrown firmly back up in the air – a wonderful development which nonetheless presented us with a problem: Having started this social campaign, we needed to see it through. Without a release date in sight, how would we keep our critical mass of supporters engaged with the project? The answer we came up with was limited sneak screenings in support of secondary campaigns. The one to entice, the other to obliquely engage.

To do this, we needed to combine our second strategic prong (education) with our first (exhibition). We would do this by hosting a series of sneak preview screenings on college campusses and by focussing our outreach on education and advocacy. We would use limited educational screenings as springboards for larger discussion and advocacy work; use them to educate people on how to run for office and further that effort by providing the resources that would help them run.

Of course, this whole strategy would imply showing the film before it was released, before a festival run, before even the distributors had a look. As most Filmmaker readers probably know, this can be a controversial proposal – especially now that we were putting more effort into securing a traditional release.

Stephen Gyllenhaal and the film’s co-producer, Kathleen Man Gyllenhaal, believed – firmly – that a number of pre-screenings would benefit the film. Drawing on experience (watching how the producers behind Brokeback Mountain approached their pre-screenings, for instance), they felt that early screenings would be a great way to build that elusive buzz and would also allow the transmedia team to keep engaging with people despite not having a set release date. This would in turn facilitate early points of entry into the film. In short, he believed that pre-screening Grassroots would help the film find its audience, even before it was ready for an audience.

But of course, there is always the opposing point of view, one which might suggest that this level of access to the film could – conversely – water down its potential once it came time to put it in the theaters. Call it the “why buy the milk when you can have the cow for free” camp. With this in mind, the biggest question for the team was how the film’s potential distributors would feel about the issue, and how we could adapt the campaign to better help them. Were we prepared to commit to this approach even if the sales agents felt it would hurt the film’s chances at traditional distribution?

As we were pondering these questions, the film’s producers were actively courting sales agents — preferably agents with open minds. The sales agents that came on board ended up being just the right fit. They got it, and clarified that, done right and with an eye to building audience, a strong educational social campaign could serve as an enticing sales point for potential buyers. However, when it came to sneak previews, as expected, they balked at first. If a distributor felt that the film was getting a large enough audience on its own, they argued, what would he or she feel they could bring to the project? We settled on a compromise of sorts: A small number of college events that were free, invite-only, and with very limited audiences. Low key, in short.

This – again – put us in a paradoxical position. Before the sales agents came on board, we had been planning a high-octane college tour; a traveling road show of political engagement, partnering with Progressive Majority in DC, get out the vote campaigns, student groups… The level of energy and PR required for this educational and political engagement campaign to succeed was high, but the campaign depended on the film as the centerpoint – the inspirational piece. How could we get that level of engagement for the campaign without promoting the sneak previews?

Seeing this, and understanding the position, our sales agents ended up coming on board 100%, with very few reservations. Perhaps, they reasoned, there was a way to use it to their advantage…

They asked us to create two extra college sneak previews – both in major markets (L.A., and N.Y.), and decided to use the college sneak previews as examples to the distributors of what sort of engagement and dialogue the film could galvanize. The net result is that the distributor screenings ended up actually happening as part of the college screenings, rather than despite the college screenings. Time will tell if this was the right thing to do – if the buyers come to see the value that our team believes the college campaign will add to the film. But, in the meantime, at least we’re inspiring the hell out of some young people.

Maybe we’ll even see some candidates come out of the deal…!

Next time: Advocacy! Candidate profiles! And did we lose a man from Georgia his election?

Grassroots is an MRB Productions film, in association with Two Tall Boots and Lanai Productions. Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, it was produced by Peggy Rajski, Matthew R. Brady, Michael Huffington and Peggy Case. Grassroots was executive produced by Brent Stiefel, Gary Tucci and Jane Charles. Grassroots was co-produced by Kathleen Man Gyllenhaal and Robin Gurland, and associate producers include Neil Mandelberg, Phil Campbell, Joe Shapiro and John Misner.

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