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A Study in Film Campaigns, Part 1: The External Action Campaign

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A Study in Film Campaigns, Part 1: The External Action Campaign

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

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To follow up our post on Immersive vs. Inclusive campaigns, we will take a closer look at how three different kinds of film campaigns differ in their focus and engagement strategy. Through this endeavor hopefully we'll discover which works best, depending on a filmmaker's goal. The first film campaign we will explore is that of the Academy Award-nominated film, The Visitor, which drove awareness of unfair deportation processes for immigrants. The Visitor is an example of a film campaign that seeks to motivate its audience to take social action to create change beyond just distributing the film. After the film had been released in theaters, the distributor, Participant Media, launched an action campaign on their social advocacy website Take Part. The website offers a variety of tools to translate a desire to help into clear, actionable next steps.

The main menu of The Visitor website offers “5 Things That You Can Do Now:” 1) Watch interviews of immigrant detainees, 2) write letters to detainees, 3) connect to a virtual immigrant experience 4) learn how to represent detainees if you’re a lawyer, 5) learn about the deportation process. By clicking on the “If you’re a lawyer, connect with experts” tab, you go to a page where lawyers can sign up to attend a free legal action seminar conducted by the O’Melveny and Myers law firm. Interestingly, this not only leads the audience towards taking action but also provides clear goals and metrics that help measure the impact of the film’s campaign. In the podcast, “The Business,” one of the producers reveals that signups through the portal trained roughly 2,500 lawyers, who later represented more than 10,000 detainees. This metric gives The Visitor campaign tangible numbers to show that it was a success, which in turn helps build more of a movement around the film and its social goals.

Clicking on the "Virtual Immigrant" tab leads you to another website called “Iced” that immerses you in the world of immigrants in America who often endure unfair laws that result in their deportation. Once on the “Iced” website, you can download a video game where you walk around a neighborhood and have to make decisions in order to not be deported. Interestingly, the game is similar to the Django video game we explored in our previous post on Immersive vs. Inclusive campaigns. However, playing the game as a virtual immigrant leads the audience to gain a deeper understanding of the real life struggles of immigrants in America. In contrast, the Django game immerses you deeper into the fictional world of its characters. The Django game uses immersion to entertain and motivate the audience to buy the DVD or merchandise, whereas The Visitor action campaign uses immersion to educate and lead their audience towards taking action in the real world.

The campaign for The Visitor is of a kind that has as its goal for the audience to take action external to the film; in other words, the film is positioned as a tool to create change. Even the immersion methods are put into practice to transform the audience into active agents, not passive consumers. A characteristic specificto this kind of campaign is that because it is tied to real-world, tangible action, its impact can in fact be measured -- not in ticket sales, but in statistics like the number of lawyers trained. These social action campaigns are more measurable than social awareness campaigns, which often lack the numbers to prove that they are effective. However, it should be noted that any audience energy that social action campaigns direct towards tangible change is by definition not being directed towards advocating for the film itself; in other words, it's good for the world, but insignificant to the film's life in distribution. To put it bluntly, the number of lawyers that The Visitor campaign trained likely had no effect on how far the film went as a product in the marketplace. However, an actual political campaign can benefit from a "sense of service to others” because its social impact goal and its endgame are one and the same. (See our post on Giving vs. Taking here.)

That's not to say there aren't lessons learned from The Visitor that any campaign can put into use. All kinds of films could do a better job of tracking how many volunteers they engage, how many phone calls they make, and how many groups are reached out to, to help spread the word about a film. In our next post we will look at how the film campaign for Beasts of the Southern Wild focuses on engaging audiences to help with distribution instead of social action like The Visitor’s campaign. What metrics can grassroots film campaigns like Beasts gather in order to gain a better understanding of their audience and help market their film?

-Josh, Michael and Carl