How to build a nerd film cult

Special to The Times

It was not the most galvanizing political stump speech in recorded history. "I do not have much to say," admitted candidate Pedro Sanchez, a low-key teenager wearing a lopsided wig. "But if you vote for me, all of your wildest dreams will come true."

The crowd erupted into thunderous applause.

This would-be politico was in fact actor Efren Ramirez, one of the young stars of "Napoleon Dynamite," an offbeat comedy shot on a shoestring $200,000 budget. Dressed as his character, a Mexican transfer student running for high school class president, Ramirez delivered what he calls his "campaign speech" at Pacific's Grove theater in Hollywood before a select constituency: registered members of the "Napoleon Dynamite" fan club.

Never mind that the film hadn't been released yet. As of that evening in early June, more than 100 preview screenings had been shown in 20 cities, and the fan club's ranks had swelled to 8,000-plus. Some 250 fans had been turned away at the theater door, but among those present were dozens wearing "Vote for Pedro" T-shirts.

"By their reaction, I knew they knew everything about Pedro, and they loved him," the actor said. "It was overwhelming."

But that apparent groundswell of early support for the film was hardly spontaneous. The T-shirts were part of a comprehensive promotional giveaway, and the fan club was a viral marketing scheme that was put into effect in early May, well before the film's June 11 opening. Even though the fans' zeal for the movie was palpable, it had ultimately been stoked by the strenuous marketing efforts of Fox Searchlight Pictures and MTV Films, which had entered into a partnership to release "Napoleon Dynamite."

Novelty movie marketing ploys are nothing new. But in this case the companies have something unusually sly and audacious in mind: They're trying to maneuver "Napoleon Dynamite" into the marketplace as a ready-made cult film," the kind of beloved but overlooked movie that becomes more cherished the more it is watched.

Before that, though, they have to get audiences in for a first viewing, which is not at all a sure thing: The film debuted to mixed reviews and modest box office returns, taking in $117,000 on six screens in two cities in its opening weekend. Still, as "Napoleon" builds toward a wider release on 500 screens across the country on July 23, the companies behind it have been pulling out some unusual stops -- including lip balm giveaways and a friends-recruiting-friends online pyramid scheme -- in hopes of inspiring repeat viewing.

An earnest saga of nerd triumphalism, the movie follows spasmodic beanpole Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) as he endures the daily humiliations of various high school bullies and his stuck-in-the-'80s Uncle Rico (Jon Gries). In Napoleon's bizarre universe, characters order time machines on the Internet, compete in milk-drinking competitions and keep pet llamas. The movie's loose plot thickens when Napoleon agrees to help his only friend, Pedro, run for class president against the school's most popular girl (Haylie Duff).

Fox bought the film for $4.75 million at the Sundance Film Festival in January. MTV, an unsuccessful bidder at Sundance, came aboard shortly after. It's the first outside partnership for either company and one that draws heavily on the network's ability to tap the 14- to 25-year-old zeitgeist and reach 87 million households with its style of marketing.

"Expectations are very modest," said David Gale, executive vice president of MTV Films. "Not only did the movie cost only a tiny fraction of what summer blockbusters cost and will be marketed for a fraction of that cost, the success of the movie is really relative. With the blockbusters, if some of them don't make $100 million, some of them will be considered failures. With us, making $10 [million] or $20 million is a big success."

Even so, they may have their work cut out for them.

"It's not generally something the studios can dump a bunch of money into and say, 'Here's your new cult movie,' " said Phil Hall, author of the upcoming "Encyclopedia of Underground Movies: Films From the Fringes of Cinema" and a contributing editor at Film Threat, an online cinema magazine. "A cult movie is discovered organically by a small and devoted audience who make a cult out of it on their own, in spite of advertising."

The companies acknowledge that it's an experimental gambit, notwithstanding a nerd-friendly pop culture universe in which "American Idol" flameout William Hung can become an idol. "Normally you can't make a cult film," said Fox Searchlight Pictures President Peter Rice. "A cult film is something you become."

With no conventional marketing angles to exploit, promoters are pitting the oddball indie, with its cast of unknown actors, against the summer's biggest potential blockbusters using a strategy that at least superficially can seem as soulful and homespun as Pedro's stump speech.

To foster an initial cult of personality for "Napoleon Dynamite," newspaper ads feature wacky snippets of dialogue from the movie like, "Will you bring me my Chapstick? My lips hurt real bad!" intermingled with the obligatory review blurbs. On June 10, MTV began airing television commercials employing the fan club website's homespun visuals and highlighting such "Napoleon" catchphrases as "Dang!" "Sweet!" and "Idiot!"

The outreach to the target audience -- 20- to 30-year-old art house moviegoers and urban hipsters -- began in late March with preview screenings. "We know our audience will come out, see the film, talk about it, go back, and then they'll see it again," said Stephanie Allen, senior vice president of creative advertising and new media at Fox Searchlight Pictures, characterizing the habits of film cultists. "So we set up this campaign with incentives to come to free screenings. We handed out free T-shirts and created a program where if you came to another screening you'd get something more -- 'Napoleon Dynamite' lip balm or trading cards -- and if you come after that, you get something even bigger."

Word of the screenings, five of which have been attended by cast members in character, continues to spread through the "Napoleon Dynamite" fan club, an elaborate web domain illustrated with faux adolescent doodles of astronauts, ninjas and such hybrid fantasy animals as spider-lobsters. People can take quizzes about the film, win prizes and run for fan club president.

And, most important to the marketing effort, a feature on the website allows them to enlist friends to join, a seemingly innocuous proposition that, in effect, puts the virus in viral marketing.

"That Friendster model is something we decided to do to get people to come see the movie," said Allen, referring to a popular online friendship referral website. "If people go to the column on the site that says 'Recruit Friends,' they're doing it because they're motivated as individuals. Using that kind of pyramid scheme, we're not even directly recruiting people after a certain point."

"Napoleon's" director, Jared Hess, a former Mormon missionary who admits the movie was partially inspired by his affinity for " '80s underdog films like 'The Karate Kid,' " has been an integral part of its advertising campaign. "From the very beginning, Fox Searchlight said, 'This is your film, you understand it better than anybody, we're going to consult you on everything,' " he said. "They've done that on every marketing detail."

MTV tapped the 24-year-old first-time director to assist an in-house MTV promo director film a series of "interstitial" spots, brief character-based commercials starring the movie's cast.

Set to air with almost numbing constancy as a final advertising push leading up to the movie's wide release, the 30-second commercials are one of the network's specialties, a mix of advertising and content designed to promote the movie and the MTV brand in equal measure. In the past, interstitial spots helped MTV Films' releases, including "Jackass" and "Save the Last Dance," become substantial hits.

For Hess, however, it has been a strange experience. "The [promo] director said, 'These are your characters, make them do whatever you want,' " he said. "But to be perfectly honest, it's been very awkward."

Tired after a long morning on the set of one such commercial, Heder scratched his head through his tight-fitting red Afro wig and pondered the tenuous connection between MTV's vision of youth and his character's triumphantly unhip worldview.

"It's kind of funny that MTV is backing this movie," Heder said. "Napoleon's world is so opposite. He doesn't know anything about MTV. But MTV loves him."

For Hess, the film's nascent cult appeal is slightly bewildering. "I didn't set out to intentionally create something that would have a cult following," he said. "This is the kind of film I always wanted to see. I just went out and made it."

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