I wrote this for Variety
Despite a paper-thin marketing budget, a bare-bones website, and very little lag time between completion, its Sundance screening and April 16 release, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," the film by notoriously secretive street artist Banksy, has emerged as the top-grossing limited-release documentary so far this year with $2.4 million.
That's music to the ears of the handful of industry veterans brought on by "Exit's" producers to devise what was probably the most lo-fi marketing campaign of their careers.
"We didn't have the kind of advance time that one would ordinarily prefer to prepare the marketplace, to organize trailers and posters and materials and screenings -- the things one ordinarily does to create awareness," says marketing consultant Richard Abramowitz, who says that though the marketing budget was tiny, the film created substantial awareness and word of mouth beyond the limited arthouse audience.
The pic's minimalist one-screen website features a six-minute movie trailer, a list of screening dates and venues -- and that's it. There are no Facebook or Twitter widgets. No links. And unlike most indie film sites, visitors are not asked to leave their email addresses for later communication.
John Sloss, who was repping the pic at Sundance, decided to release it himself via his Producers Distribution Alliance label.
Sloss purposely relinquished control of the film's Web and social networking presence, allowing Banksy's fans to do the work for the marketers. And work they did, generating a wave of Twitter, Facebook and FourSquare activity about the movie -- data which the "Exit" team carefully monitored, and responded to, in real-time. A fan created a Foursquare badge which became a badge of honor for artsy filmgoers to unlock.
"If the film was sold out at 7 p.m. in a market, then we'd tweet, '7 p.m. is sold out -- 10 p.m. is available,'?" says Marc Schiller, founder of street art blog Wooster Collective and CEO of boutique media agency Electric Artists. Adds Sloss: "We know for a fact that the people who were coming opening weekend are not regular moviegoers. They don't read the newspapers or traditional movie advertising -- we were connecting with them online, from within their community."
Prior to release, at least two tastemaker screenings were held in every market, with "very specific" people invited from the creative community. Once the film opened, if a community said it wanted the film, the "Exit" team responded, allowing for quick shifts in the distribution pattern.
Since the April 16 opening of "Exit Through the Gift Shop" in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, which widened eventually to 46 theaters, the energy has continued, with audiences gradually skewing older and more mainstream.
"There are two basic approaches to the distribution of a specialized movie," Sloss explains, "One, that there is a finite audience that is incrementally used up by doing pre-release screenings, or two, that there is a potentially infinite audience that is accessed and expanded by doing such screenings. We chose the latter approach and it worked."