A recurring theme in many of our posts is whether grassroots organizing tools can benefit all film distribution efforts or only films that fit into a specific genre type, or budget level: i.e. issue-based, non-fiction or independent. We will explore this question further by looking at the formative efforts to extend a film’s reach online, and what they tell us about the disparate roles of the internet in the contemporary distribution of different kinds of films. Donnie Darko and The Blair Witch Project were among the first films to break ground in how to expand a film’s presence through the internet. Both films succeed at drawing a deeper connection with fans by using their websites to extend the fictional world of their films. For example, when you click on the Donnie Darko webpage the user becomes like the character Donnie Darko, trying to collect clues and make sense of the mysterious world of time travel. Eerie music plays and the user must answer riddles to learn new information about the characters, themes and ideas in the film. The Blair Witch Project also seeks to immerses the audience deeper into its fictional world by extending the Blair Witch Myth in its website. The “Mythology” tab provides a pseudo history of the Blair Witch myth as if it were true. The “Filmmakers” tab offers a photo gallery of the filmmakers working on the project before they disappeared, making the story seem all the more real.
Over time, many Hollywood releases have emulated what Donnie Darko and The Blair Witch Project were the first to do by immersing the audience deeper into the fantasy world of their own films. For example, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained website offers a variety of games fans can chose from to go deeper into the imaginary world of Django. From the main menu screen, you can play a game where you shoot down slave owners as if you were Django in the film. You can watch an interactive trailer that asks you trivia questions about the film, and another screen lets you click around the Candy Land plantation to discover promotional material from the film. Other Hollywood films like Catfish and Men in Black use a similar approach to stoke fan-dom and develop a deep but passive relationship between the consumer and product. Though elaborate and certainly fun, the main goal of all these websites is actually merely to motivate fans to develop a deeper connection to the fictional world of the movie, such that they buy the DVD, spread the word about the film to their friends, and possibly purchase merchandise.
This leads us to understand that a key difference between how mainstream Hollywood films and what we can refer to as films with “legitimate grassroots” distribution campaigns that use the internet boils down to immersive vs. inclusive. Immersive campaigns seek to gain traction in sales by drawing the audience deeper into the fictional world of the film; this is basically just an isoteric and specialized form of marketing. In contrast, inclusive campaigns deliberately take an audience member out of the world of a film, to acknowledge explicitly that a film is a film, and one that needs support to survive; given this premise, they then actively include the audience in the distribution process. The relationship between the filmmaker and audience member is active and the goal is for the audience to be transformed into advocates of the film to others in their communities.
Four Eyed Monsters, Sleepwalk With Me and Beasts of the Southern Wild are all examples of inclusive distribution campaigns that break from the immersive marketing model, and ask their audience to use grassroots tools to help distribute their film. For instance, Four Eyed Monsters and Sleepwalk with Me ask audience members to transform their support for the film into action online to convince movie theaters to screen their film. The website for Beasts of the Southern Wild asks fans to contact the Beasts team directly to be enlisted to host house parties, community screenings or recruiting a group to see the film in theaters. Interestingly, however, Fox Searchlight created a separate website for Beasts called WelcometotheBathtub.com that uses immersive tactics to sell the film. This proves that immersive and inclusive campaigns do not have to be totally separate; in fact the two can complement each other.
Just as the independent films like Donnie Darko and Blair Witch Project led the way for immersive marketing methods on the web, contemporary films that use grassroots organizing tools could be paving the way for marketing films in the future. This does not mean that immersive campaigns are not still effective, but instead that inclusive campaigns present a new dynamic between filmmaker and audience member that distributors should not ignore. (For example, though Veronica Mars was produced and distributed by a major network, that didn’t stop the show from benefiting from a major grassroots show of support via Kickstarter to greenlight the production of a film based on the show). In our future posts we will continue to explore how grassroots organizing is starting to intersect with the distribution process for mainstream films.
-Josh, Michael and Carl