Disney Draws on ‘Passion’ to Promote ‘Heart & Soul’

Times Staff Writer

When Hollywood summons influential tastemakers to early movie screenings, agricultural organizations usually are not on the list. But early last month, leaders of FFA, formerly known as Future Farmers of America, were invited to an Indianapolis multiplex for a peek at one of this summer’s documentaries, “America’s Heart & Soul.”

By the time the film opens in about 40 cities July 2, the FFA says, it will have employed its website, e-mail tree and journal to recommend “America’s Heart & Soul” to its 460,000 members. Says Anna Melodia, who directs the organization’s education division: “What we are looking to do is help spread the word.”

Almost every studio summer movie is backed by paparazzo-attracting stars, $50-million advertising campaigns, fast-food tie-ins and action figures.


“America’s Heart & Soul,” a movie chronicling the accomplishments of 26 U.S. citizens both ordinary and remarkable, from Cajun musicians to a blind mountain climber, enjoys none of that high-octane promotion.

Disney is instead selling its film through extensive word-of-mouth screenings, concentrating its efforts on the parts of the country most Hollywood executives see only from the windows of their Gulfstream jets. It’s a strategy long on labor and short on resources, patterned on the campaign behind Mel Gibson’s blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ.”

Although “America’s Heart & Soul” isn’t about religion, the studio frequently called Gibson’s team for pointers on the film’s sales strategy. And as with “The Passion,” studio executives knew the film’s success would hinge on connecting with those who don’t habitually queue up for the latest Tom Cruise blockbuster.

Instead of buying pricey commercials in the middle of a Laker game, Disney will spend a meager $400,000 on print advertisements. While some movies blanket the nation with promotional billboards, the studio will cover the country with free “America’s Heart & Soul” preview screenings to groups as varied as klezmer musicians and horse wranglers. And mirroring “The Passion’s” release strategy, the filmmakers are courting scores of faith-based organizations.

“It was a hugely successful model,” Dick Cook, Disney’s studio chief, says of “The Passion” release plan, which included about 50 screenings for conservative religious leaders in the weeks preceding the drama’s February release.

So far, Gibson’s $25-million movie has grossed more than $370 million, in part a testament to its novel personal pitch to evangelical Christians.


Controversy also contributed to “The Passion’s” success, generating significant media attention and public debate over the film’s alleged anti-Semitism.

Currently, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a vitriolic political documentary set to be in theaters later this month, is benefiting from a headline-grabbing firestorm that can help elevate a film above the summer blockbuster fray.

Disney isn’t courting controversy -- it dumped “Fahrenheit 9/11” because of its content -- but it certainly could use the bottom-line benefit a small flap can produce.

To draw attention to the documentary the studio does want you to see, Disney estimates that it has held nearly 500 domestic screenings since January, some for audiences of no more than five, all to get people across the nation to start talking about it and, in turn, stimulate interest and ticket sales.

“It’s not as if anyone is reinventing the wheel. It’s going back to doing things the way we used to, before everyone fell in love with a TV spot on ‘Friends,’ ” Cook says. “This is the way we used to release movies. We worked.”

Cinematographer Louis Schwartzberg’s portrait-filled movie, something of a Studs Terkel book on film, touches on so many lifestyles that this week alone, the studio screened “America’s Heart & Soul” to members of the Sierra Club and the International Federation of Bike Messengers in San Francisco, and to members of AARP, the American Legion and the American Assn. of People With Disabilities in Washington, D.C.


In addition to its negligible marketing costs, Disney has invested $1 million in “America’s Heart & Soul.” Although the upside for profits might be limited, it’s certainly a safer investment than the studio’s recent $100-million flop, “The Alamo.”

No one at Disney is expecting a fraction of the returns generated by a typical summer blockbuster, and the studio says it will be gratified if “America’s Heart & Soul” grosses more than $10 million, what each of the three stars of “Shrek” earned for the current sequel.

There is precedent for success: The distributors of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” promoted their film through scores of word-of-mouth screenings to interested parties; the film grossed more than $241 million.

“My favorite book growing up was ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ and this is our own ‘Little Engine That Could,’ ” says Lylle Breier, a Disney senior vice president for special events who is spearheading the “America’s Heart & Soul” screening campaign.

Breier’s staff of 23, who typically organize splashy events such as the 1995 “Pocahontas” premiere in New York’s Central Park, has tracked down hundreds of organizations that might be inclined to tout the film, identifying no fewer than 20 significant groups dedicated to gospel music.

The studio tries to have at least one Disney employee introduce each screening, even if it’s someone from the company’s home video division.


The studio has also released customized “America’s Heart & Soul” artwork that groups can use in e-mails, on websites and in newsletters. For example, Disney sent the Fraternal Order of Eagles a ready-made layout and an image of the film’s bald eagle. The service organization is now using both the layout and the bird to recommend the film.

Schwartzberg, who also directed “America’s Heart & Soul,” spent more than a decade securing a theatrical distributor for his debut film.

Known within the industry for directing commercials and spectacular time-lapse images of nature that have been featured in “American Beauty” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” Schwartzberg started assembling the first threads of his documentary in the late 1980s while making promotional spots for local TV newscasts in such cities as Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

“I never would have gone to these cities in a million years,” he says. “My job was to make these cities look great. The blessing is that I got to go to cities that get a bad rap but are really amazing.”

Movie studios weren’t as thrilled. Warner Bros. briefly tried to develop the project into a film, and Schwartzberg started researching people to profile, but the studio eventually dropped the project.

“It had no stars, no money and, at that point, no nonfiction film had ever made any money,” Schwartzberg says. “I haven’t been successful as a Hollywood dealmaker. But I was able to put a camera on my shoulder.”


He kept filming. Starting in 1999 and continuing through 2000, he met and interviewed an array of people, almost all of them passionate about one thing, from rug weaving to dairy farming.

Some portraits were shown on an Odyssey Channel cable TV series called “America,” but Schwartzberg was convinced that, taken together, they could make for a feature film united by several themes.

“I’ve always had a vision to make a movie about America that celebrates its values,” the director says. “I am showing people who are doing something that is fulfilling.”

By late 2002 he had dozens of hours of vignettes. Although all his footage was shot before Sept. 11, 2001, the movie took on new poignancy after the terrorist attacks. He showed a rough assembly of scenes to Jake Eberts, the producer of “Open Range” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

“I am a foreigner,” says the Canadian Eberts. “And when I am with my European friends, their impression of America is totally colored by today’s news. This movie is the America you don’t see, but the America you should see.”

Eberts took the movie to Disney, which loved it yet realized that it offered profound marketing challenges.


“It’s very difficult to describe, certainly in a sentence or two,” the studio’s Cook says.

Nonetheless, the film carries the upbeat message that the studio tends to embrace.

“This is not ‘Spider-Man,’ and we are not remotely close to those kind of ambitions. But the filmmaking is fantastic, and we think it’s the kind of movie that deserves to be seen,” Cook says.

In deciding to emulate Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” screening plan, Disney was building on a strategy it employed last year with “Holes,” in which director Andy Davis and novelist-screenwriter Louis Sachar showed the film to scores of elementary school teachers and librarians around the country.

“I think it helped a lot,” Davis says. “It let the teachers know it was OK to go to the movie.”

Others are following the same playbook.

Before releasing “Super Size Me,” Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films screened the fast-food documentary more than 30 times.

In addition to inviting the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (which prominently mentions the film on its website), the distributor welcomed executives from Whole Foods Market (which included mention of the documentary in the grocery chain’s newsletter).

The documentary is one of the surprise hits of the year, having taken in more than $6.6 million and repeatedly making the box office Top 10.


Whether Disney’s strategy will pay off won’t be known until well after “America’s Heart & Soul” opens, because documentaries can often stay in theaters for months.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that people are starting to pay attention.

Michael Elliott conducts a weekly Bible study in his Orlando, Fla., home, and when the dozen participants recently gathered, one of his topics was not Scripture but “America’s Heart & Soul.”

Half the group, Elliott included, had seen the film at an early screening, and by the time the meeting was over the rest had heard so many recommendations that they planned to buy tickets.

Says Elliott, who also reviews movies on a Christian-oriented website: “And I’m sure each one of them is going to tell their friends to go too.”