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How to build a nerd film cult

Fan base is engineered even before 'Napoleon Dynamite' opens wide.

June 26, 2004|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

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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