Documentaries With Differing Views on America Duel Online

  |  July 6, 2004   |  Comments

'Fahrenheit 9/11,' a film critical of President Bush, and the patriotic 'America's Heart & Soul' compete onscreen and online.

As "America's Heart & Soul," a patriotic film released by Disney July 2, dukes it out with Michael Moore's anti-President Bush film "Fahrenheit 9/11" on the big screen, the two are running competing online marketing campaigns as well.

The controversy surrounding both films is white-hot. Walt Disney refused last year to distribute "Fahrenheit 9/11," which is critical of President Bush. The studio then used the Fourth of July holiday this year to launch its patriotic "America's Heart & Soul."

Though Disney refused to support "Fahrenheit 9/11," it is putting a considerable amount of effort into marketing "America's Heart & Soul." Similarly to the promotion for Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," Disney has offered early screenings to special interest groups and put up a Web site promoting the film at http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/heartandsoul/.

"Fahrenheit 9/11," released June 25 to record box office revenue for a documentary, has a Web site at http://www.fahrenheit911.com/. Michael Moore's site, http://www.michaelmoore.com/, also promotes the film.

The competing sites have conventional marketing features, such as movie trailers, guides to local movie theaters where the pictures are showing and phone numbers and links to ticket sales. But the similarities stop there.

The Disney site offers visitors a number of methods to spread the word about "America's Heart & Soul," which opened in 98 U.S. theaters July 2. Highly viral and grassroots-oriented, the methods are reminiscent of many presidential candidates' Web sites. Linked from the homepage, they include e-cards visitors can send to friends to encourage attendance, posters, postcards, flyers, email, banner ads and guidelines for group outings. The campaign is also similar of the Web site for "The Passion of the Christ," which marketed "Passion" via shirts, posters and other products.

The site for "Fahrenheit 9/11" has similar guides to activism, but most are not focused on the movie itself. These include a library of resources, which are books recommended by Michael Moore and sold through Amazon.com; links and suggestions on how to support American troops in Iraq; and an exhortation to "take Mike's pledge," which includes a promise to register 10 people to vote. The Michael Moore site also includes a blog by Moore about the movie.

A Disney official explained the reasoning behind the studio's online marketing strategy for "America's Heart & Soul."

"This is a documentary. It's a small picture that did not cost a lot to make. We can't spend a lot on advertising. Publicity must be driven by grassroots marketing efforts such as those on the Web site," said Dennis Rice, senior VP of publicity for Walt Disney Studios.

"We began to use the site as far back as April to accommodate offline publicity and grassroots organizers so there would be a place to go to mobilize special interest groups to see the movie," Rice said. In the interests of extending the viral marketing originating on the site, Disney arranged special screenings for these special interest groups, he said.

These groups include the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, AARP (an association for people over 50), the Sierra Club, MoveOn.org, the Rotary Club, and Move America Forward (MAF). On its Web site, MAF refers to Michael Moore as a "propaganda filmmaker" and asked Americans to "let movie theater operators know about their objections" if they found in "Fahrenheit 9/11" "an attempt to undermine the war on terror."

Moore lashed out on his Web site in response to the MAF screening, accusing Disney of "joining forces with the right-wing kooks who have come together to attempt to censor Fahrenheit 9/11."

Rice said Disney has no affiliation with Move America Forward, adding, "We've tried to get everybody to see this movie and report back to their constituency." The movie, and its marketing, are "nonpartisan," Rice said. Referring to "America's Heart & Soul," Rice said, "This movie was not released in response to "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Moore's sites have drawn considerable traffic. On Monday, June 28, a total of 101,000 users visited michaelmoore.com, according to comScore Media Metrix. On June 25, more than 50,000 users visited F911Tix.com to buy tickets for the movie, an increase of 250 percent from the previous Friday, comScore spokesman Graham Mudd said. Numbers for the "America's Heart & Soul" site were not available.

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Janis Mara

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