Just hours after some drunk guy Kamikaze-ed a stolen Cessna 150 into the South Lawn of the White House, my boss came down to my office to personally express his disappointment that I hadn’t briefed him on the incident.
It was September 12, 1994 and the PR world was trying to recalibrate itself into the perpetual “rapid-response mode” that was the hallmark of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, made famous in the documentary “The War Room” that had come out the year before.
Once that film hit the theaters, my boss put me in charge of gathering up the world’s news and reading the summaries to him every morning at 7:00 as Earl drove him to the office. If a plane crash landed at the White House in the middle of the night then, “Dammit, John, I need to know about it!”
Fair enough. But this was 1994 and the Internet—and my twin daughters—were still toddlers and no help whatsoever in gathering news. So I had to get up at 5:00 a.m., scan four newspapers, watch CNN and the local news programs, and listen to the radio news station all while feeding my kids breakfast—one Cheerio at a time. A War Room operation this was not.
I was reminded of this Cronkite-ian nightmare recently when a new movie, also called “The War Room,” broke the box office with its unconventional promotional strategy. Marketed solely through social media, the movie debuted at number two after “Straight Outta Compton,” raking in $11.4 million in its opening weekend—nearly four times what it cost to make. (As of yesterday, it had racked up $65 million in ticket sales.)
Much like the original “War Room,” this movie provides critical lessons about the changing rules of successful marketing and communication. Here are seven big ones:
Be religious in your audience targeting—“The War Room” was made by evangelicals for evangelicals. Period. “Our bull’s-eye audience are people of faith and the church,” said director Alex Kendrick. And because he wasn’t trying to entertain a mass audience, Kendrick’s film resonated with his religious audience.
Preach to the choir—According to Kendrick, they “intentionally showed the film to pastors and community leaders to get their support.” But the power of these co-conspiratorial relationships is magnified exponentially on social media. People listen to people they trust. And while you may not have a network of churches in your LinkedIn contacts, you do have a flock of FB friends who, in turn, have flocks of their own. And so on.
Don’t worship false matinee idols—Do you remember Johnny Depp’s blockbuster hit Mortdecai? Of course you don’t. It disappeared from the theaters faster than John Wilkes Booth. The fact is A-list star power doesn’t guarantee butts in movie-theater seats anymore. But if you cast an unknown, you might have a prayer. And if that rookie actress happens to be Priscilla Shirer—best-selling author and daughter of the Rev. Tony Evans, one of the most well-known pastors in America—well, buddy, your prayers are gonna be answered.
In the beginning, move heaven and Earth—There’s a reason people dress like over-stuffed Oreos and dance at shopping malls. There is a power and excitement to launches that is only magnified by social media. To hype their opening weekend, the producers spent months reaching out to fellow pastors, Christian book stores owners, and community leaders, and implored them to “encourage the people that you’re leading and the people that you are influencing … to see ‘War Room.’”
Cast bread upon the waters—And this outreach paid off in ways they probably hadn’t anticipated. After seeing several Facebook posts about the movie, Danielle Wright—the host of an online radio show called “Power of Prayer”—arranged a private screening for more than 200 church leaders a day before the film was released. Guess what they preached about that weekend?
Judge not? Best ye be judged—If you want to secure that critical buy-in from influential community leaders, you’re going to have to invite critical comments from them first. In order to build strong bonds with the network of influential pastors who drove millions of parishioners to the movie, the filmmakers invited the pastors to view and criticize early versions of the film … five times. This was quite clever, really. Once the pastors had a hand in editing, the film’s ultimate box-office success was now their responsibility.
Remember the Good Book—Social media marketing is a multi-platform affair. To inspire communication about their movie, the producers wrote seven different online “War Room” bible study guides, including a “leader kit,” that can be yours for the low low price of $24.99—less than the price of a bag of buttered popcorn and a small diet Coke. Bless their hearts.