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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. 

Jeremy Bird, 2012 Obama National Field Director, Talks Grassroots Organizing and Film: Part 2


Jeremy Bird, 2012 Obama National Field Director, Talks Grassroots Organizing and Film: Part 2

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn


In our previous post we talked to Jeremy Bird, the former National Field Director of the Obama campaign in 2012, and discussed best practices from the Obama campaign that could help filmmakers distribute their films. In this post we will discuss our takeaways and conclusion from the interview. Takeaways

From our interview with Jeremy Bird, it is clear that filmmakers have 3 main disadvantages compared to political campaigns: 1) In film it is hard to access data and it is not clear what data sources will be most effective for targeting audiences, 2) You need experts that can interpret and use data to create models and 3) Models have to be customized to a specific campaign and this takes a lot of money and resources that independent filmmakers do not have.

However, Bird also recalled that when he first worked for the Obama campaign as the Field Director of South Carolina during the primary, they had to build their network and entire operation from scratch like many independent filmmakers when distributing their films. Bird went on to highlight 4 best practices from the campaign that filmmakers could adapt to distribute their movies.

1) Empowering volunteers by sharing access to more data and giving them real responsibility. Bird stressed that volunteers form the foundation of any true grassroots organization and need to be motivated through a sense of trust, responsibility and ownership. One of the major reasons the Obama campaign was able to effectively collect data and target persuadable voters was because organizers recruited an army of volunteers to call and knock on doors to figure out who in the universe were supporters. Without volunteers on the ground to collect information about voters, the data team would have had a far less accurate model of targeting persuadable voters.  This can only be done by giving real responsibility to volunteers and making them understand they are an integral part of the campaign.

2) Organizing consumer data to target potential supporters of a film. This can be the starting point for creating a data set of supporters for a specific film. For example, Bird mentioned the Obama campaign was able to look at consumer data and determine that someone who drove a Prius car is environmentally friendly and therefore a likely Obama supporter. The same type of modeling could be helpful for independent film, i.e. someone who liked the cult film Blue Velvet might also want to see another cult film like, Donnie Darko.  Examining consumer information further, someone who subscribes to Filmmaker Magazine or the Sundance Channel are avid indie movie goers and far more likely to want to see your independent film compared to the average consumer.

3) Creating multiple narratives about your film that market to both broad and niche audiences. The Obama campaign was very creative in forming many sub constituency groups like, Students for Obama, Latino’s for Obama and Veterans for Obama just to name a few. These constituency groups helped attract a diverse range of supporters by making them feel included. At the same time, the Obama campaign used messaging like “Change We Can Believe In” to appeal to a broad audience. In contrast, filmmakers often limit themselves by trying to decide if they should market their film as a story that appeals to the masses or only small niche audiences. The example of the Obama campaign suggests filmmakers might not have to chose and should market to both mainstream and specific groups. For example, filmmakers could cut multiple trailers of their film, one that appeals to the mainstream and other trailers that focus on certain themes that appeal to specific niche groups.

4) Using commit cards to motivate audiences to opt-in to watching your film at home. The Obama campaign increased the turnout of sporadic Democrats, people who have a poor record of voting; by asking them fill out commit cards that were eventually mailed back to their house to remind them they committed to voting. The same strategy could be used to motivate audiences to watch a film at their home. Filmmakers could create a sense of urgency around signing commit cards by sharing goals for number of VOD rentals, or hits on YouTube. For example, “commit to watching ‘Glory at Sea’ March 30th, and help us break our goal of 10,000 views.” Once someone signs an online commit card to watch a film on a certain date, it would then be sent back to them in an email to remind them of their commitment to see the film.


At the end of the interview, Jeremy Bird explained that with digital media the Obama campaign was trying to

“Create our own channel. When you have 20 million people on your email list, you’re no longer reliant on the establishment. We weren’t scared of things that were said about us in the bubble world because we had our own mechanism to distribute information.”


We have studied many independent filmmakers that have created their own distribution channels in order to overcome the established marketplace of Hollywood. However, many of these filmmakers are at a huge disadvantage from the start since there is no organization that can provides them with the necessary data, resources and knowledge they need to run an effective film campaign.

In contrast, political candidates can hire companies like 270 Strategies for consulting advice, and organizations like OFA and the DNC already have large voter databases and email lists they can tap in order to build their campaigns. This makes us wonder if a similar consulting firm like 270 Strategies or an umbrella hub like Organizing for Action, might be helpful for the film world.

However, how would the organization build its email lists and tap into data sources that independent filmmakers could use to grow and target their audiences? Would the organization consist of mostly of people in the film industry, or people from the non-profit and community organizing world? We plan to explore these questions in later posts.

-Michael, Josh and Carl