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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 


What is grassroots?

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

What is grassroots? After the success of the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012, the term “grassroots” has become a buzzword in both the political arena and in the realm of film -- both in its production and distribution. But what does the term grassroots really mean? In their article, “’A Tree Falls in the Forest’ and Other Ruminations on Social/Community-based Marketing,” film distributors Orly Ravid and Jeffrey Winter of the Film Collaborative assert that these days “every person with internet is a distributor”; this is undeniably true. But it’s precisely because of that fact that the “grassroots outreach” plan they prescribe to filmmakers feels pretty par for the course. It goes without saying that one would strive to use social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread word about a film.

Are these platforms truly “grassroots” tools? In our study, we aim to parse out the current discourse about grassroots distribution to separate the signal from the noise. With our background in electoral politics, we will approach this conversation with particular consideration towards the potential of the methodologies and structures of the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 when applied towards film distribution. We aim to discover what paths are effective, and for what kind of films.

In that vein, Ravid and Winter’s article becomes more useful as it turns toward a particular case study between two very different films.

The article suggests that films about social issues create a sense of urgency that is crucial for igniting grassroots film distribution campaigns. The article compares two different films to illustrate this point: We Were Here, a documentary about HIV awareness, and a romantic comedy titled Henry’s Crime. Although both films apply similar grassroots methods by reaching out to core constituency groups to help promote the film, We Were Here had a much more successful distribution run. This is because the issue of HIV awareness generates a sense of urgency that motivates supporters and advocacy groups to spread the message of the film. In contrast, even though Henry’s Crime tried similar grassroots tactics like reaching out to the fans of stars in the movie to help promote, there was less urgency surrounding the romantic comedy, and the film flopped.

A number of questions result: could Henry’s Crime have succeeded had different grassroots methods been used for it than were for We Were Here, given that they’re very different films? Can you create urgency around a film that isn’t rooted in issues? This is just the beginning of what’s sure to be a long and interesting conversation. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

--Carl, Michael and Josh