Author Khaled Hosseini's novel "The Kite Runner" became a runaway bestseller in 2003 based largely on positive word-of-mouth among readers throughout the world. But can Hollywood deliver a hit movie by persuading fans of the book to see the film?
That's the intriguing question facing Paramount Vantage, the art-house arm of Paramount Pictures, after it embarked on an unusual marketing strategy to develop awareness of the movie among the novel's large fan base.
All across the U.S., with the encouragement of the studio's digital marketing division, those fans have been setting up "Kite Runner Clubs," which are enlisting dozens or even hundreds of people to join their ranks for online messages and discussion groups about the book and movie. To date, 1,215 clubs have formed from Southern California to New York with many of the clubs in smaller towns in between. In all, 15,664 people have joined the clubs.
To be sure, traditional advertising will take center stage in the studio's marketing of the film, but the book club gambit makes for one of the more interesting topics of the season.
Each group is run by a club "captain," whose goal is to enlist as many club members as possible as part of a contest being run through the movie's official website, www.kiterunnermovie.com. The club captain who has the most members will join Hosseini in San Francisco for a private, sit-down meal. Second place is a trip to Los Angeles for the film's premiere during the first week of December. Winners will be announced next week.
Clubs with 200 members will receive copies of the book personally signed by the author, and 100-member clubs will attend advanced screenings of the film in their hometowns along with family and friends. Other prizes include "Kite Runner" leather bookmarks and lapel pins.
"We wanted to develop a platform to give those very engaged fans an opportunity to take their love of that book and spread it around and give them an opportunity to meet Khaled Hosseini," said Bladimiar Norman, head of interactive marketing at Paramount Vantage. "The idea is to allow word-of-mouth for the film to spread in the same way that love for the book spread by word-of-mouth."
The Marc Forster-directed film, which opens Dec. 14 in 10 of the top U.S. markets, tells the story of an emigre who, after spending years in California, returns to his homeland in Afghanistan to help his boyhood friend's son, who is in trouble.
Megan Colligan, executive vice president of marketing at Paramount Vantage, said the idea to use the clubs in the film's marketing stemmed from a "collective brainstorm" after Stacey Snider, who runs DreamWorks, which produced the film, stressed that since the movie doesn't feature big-name actors, the movie itself is the star.
"When you can't just have Julia Roberts go on 'Oprah,' " to publicize the film "you have to think of things in a different way," Colligan said.
Colligan had a similar idea a few years back when she worked at Fox Searchlight. To promote its offbeat indie film "Napoleon Dynamite," the studio sponsored a contest for people to become president of the Napoleon Dynamite Fan Club. "It created a sense that you wanted to see the film over and over and become the ultimate fan," she said. "That really took off."
Colligan said that the clubs are only a part of the marketing effort for "The Kite Runner." Along with traditional advertising, the film has also been shown to church groups and other audiences. Even former President George H.W. Bush has seen the film twice -- once at his summer home in Maine and another time in Houston. "We were also at [former President Bill] Clinton Global Initiative at the end of September," she said.
Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking firm Media by Numbers, said it makes sense for Paramount Vantage to tap into the book's fan base. "The fans are very steadfast in their love for this book. I think by using the grass-roots approach, you get more people interested in the book and, thereby, the film."
But the rub, he added, is that whenever you have a beloved book, you run the risk of comparing the book to the movie.
Three of the largest "Kite Runner" clubs are the 437-member Ready Runners in Las Vegas, the 375-member New York University's Afghan Students Assn. in New York, and the 365-member Anteater Book Club in Irvine. Another is the 260-member club at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa., and the 256-member Epilogue Book Co. in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Beth Smith, who teaches senior English in Marshall County, Tennessee, at Marshall High School, is captain of a "Kite Runner" club called The Bridge, which has 105 members. They include 50 of her students. She said they call their club The Bridge because they see the book's message as a bridge to tolerance and the understanding of all cultures.
"We won a free screening of the movie" at a theater in Franklin, Tenn., Smith said. "Most of my students and several community members went. We enjoyed it, but many of my students said the book was better. The movie left out certain stuff. But certain things had to be left out or it would be a six-hour movie."
She said she first read the book over the summer after she noticed that a number of seniors seeking college credits had mentioned reading the book. "It's got a powerful message," Smith said, adding that the class intends to discuss "the morality of silence" and that her students will soon be writing essays on injustices that they see and writing letters to people who they believe can do something about them.