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Ethnic grassroots campaigns have created such a big buzz around some low-budget multicultural films that Hollywood has been forced to take notice.

Ethnic grassroots campaigns have created such a big buzz around some low-budget multicultural films that Hollywood has been forced to take notice.

Summer is here, and a slew of big-budget films are vying for audience attention. From The Hulk to The Matrix Reloaded, Hollywood's largest studios are throwing their marketing machines into high gear and luring viewers into theaters with in-your-face advertising, promotions, and PR blitzes that make it impossible not to know what the must-see movie of the week is. But in between Keanu Reeves and '70s TV characters is a handful of small-budget multicultural films seeking out niche audiences. Movies like Bend it Like Beckham (about an East Indian girl's love of soccer), the upcoming Charlotte Sometimes (centering on four Asian Americans in LA), and this spring's Better Luck Tomorrow (with Asian actors in all lead roles) lack star power and the financial clout to mount big campaigns. But their ties to ethnic enclaves are providing a marketing strategy that is increasingly common - and increasingly successful. "Look at the budget for any of the big movies, like X-Men 2," says Greg Pak, a filmmaker who runs the movie information website AsianAmericanFilm.com. "Those publicity budgets are incredible, and these smaller films can't compete with that. But what they do have is groups like us who are passionate about getting the word out there." That passion is filling theaters, and bringing in enough money to make Hollywood take notice. Multicultural entertainment projects have come a long way toward perfecting their outreach to the communities they represent on the silver screen through grassroots PR campaigns that literally take it to the streets with the promise not just of a good flick, but of the potential for social change. Tapping into that activism has become a favorite tactic for entertainment marketers, but ethnic-community members say they don't mind so long as their economic support catches the interest of corporate America. Dollars are a Hollywood deity, and ethnic audiences know that spending their money at the box office is the best way to gain admittance to the film industry's exclusive ranks. "I used to hear a lot of ethnic communities say, 'Hollywood doesn't want to tell our stories,'" says Laura Kim, an SVP at mPRm, who worked on Better Luck Tomorrow. "But in fact, it's just business. It's crucial to make audiences aware that this is their chance to vote and weigh in and say, 'This is the kind of movie I'd like to see.'" While African American - and to a lesser extent Latino - audiences have had years of practice voting with their cash, other demographics are just starting to get in the game. Asian audiences, for example, have been less of a target. But ethnic markets are changing, especially for youth. The cultural sensibilities of ethnic niches are blending together to form a multicultural urban demographic that leaves marketers tapping into the city sensibility through a variety of cultural doors. "My sense is that there is no more mass market," says Armando Azarloza, GM at Weber Shandwick Los Angeles. "Everything has become niche markets. If you look at the urban market today, it's black, it's white, it's yellow." Combining cultural voices While ethnic America does not speak with - nor listen to - a single voice, it does form certain allegiances when it comes to supporting communities. For instance, Better Luck Tomorrow targeted its PR campaign not just at East Asians, but also at South Asians - Indians, Thais, Malaysians, and other demographics that have very different cultures, but in the US all share a similar mainstream perception. It is similar to the way Latinos are often targeted as a single group despite major cultural differences between countries of origin. "It doesn't matter what you are, because those people looking at the numbers don't really differentiate between Japanese, Korean, or Southeast Asian," explains Kim of the lines ethnicities will cross to support a film. That reality helped Better Luck Tomorrow's PR team tap into a wider potential audience with a long-lead grassroots campaign that took the message of empowerment to core college audiences throughout the country. "The mantra went out among the Asian-American community that this is yours, and this is your chance to make history," explains David Magdael, principal and chairman of TCDM & Associates, which handled ethnic PR for the film, and runs a "first-weekend" club for Asian-American film projects. "That was very powerful. There is a generation of younger kids who are in college now who have this activism about seeing themselves portrayed correctly in the media. As a community, we knew that if this movie didn't fly, we wouldn't get another chance." Using a strong web presence and screenings with the cast and the director, TCDM recruited volunteer street teams in key college towns. Those supporters became central to filling theaters on the film's opening weekend - one of the most important measures of a film's success. Movies that don't have a strong box-office showing in their first three days are often pulled off screens by theater owners, and are considered flops by Hollywood. The volunteers gave the film deep penetration among the core target audience, and a team of promoters who believed that the film represented more than just entertainment. Magdael points to a single volunteer at the University of California at Berkeley who was instrumental in making the film a hit in that market. "He took off a week from school to promote it," Magdael says. "We loaded him up with posters and postcards, and he was able to get the whole weekend sold out by Friday evening." Magdael's team also targeted another key group for ethnic communities: the press. "These were the people who were going to champion the film in the media outlets," Magdael explains. A special screening of the film was held at the Asian American Journalists Association conference, where journalists of color for both mainstream and specialty-market outlets gathered. The film's promoters asked the media to consider backing the project by pitching the story to their outlets and adopting it as a vehicle to speak about ethnic communities. "It's all about ownership," Magdael says of the overall strategy, highlighting an idea that is key to most multicultural campaigns. Still an evolving process That kind of ownership does, however, require an insular viewpoint. Hollywood and Madison Avenue are ever more aware of the potential of ethnic consumers. But finding the best way to tap those markets with a voice that resonates is still an evolving process. Entertainment projects as vehicles for other products are an increasingly popular way of selling or branding, based on the activism that has propelled the entertainment projects themselves to success. "Shakira was hot in the Latino market when she first arrived from Columbia," points out Anita Alban, VP for the Western region at FH Hispania. "All of a sudden, Pepsi picked her up, and she was a rising star. Pepsi wanted to attract and portray its hipness by hooking up with her." That kind of mainstream validation may be one aspect of the social result ethnic communities are searching for. But aiming campaigns at it takes finesse - and authenticity. "The urban community has a real bullshit detector," says Heidi Eusebio, VP of Edelman Diversity Solutions, who has worked on ethnic projects with hip-hop artist Nelly and Latin Grammy nominee Nicole, among others. "You want to have the community validate you," Alban adds. "They want to know that you are listening and that you think they are important." There's no doubt that ethnic consumers are important. They represent demographics that are increasing each year, both in numbers and in buying power, and the slow rise in marketing dollars spent by corporate America to get their attention is proof that someone is listening. The success of films like Better Luck Tomorrow - even if not big by Hollywood standards - will lead to other attempts. That, says Magdael, is the real benefit for audiences. "The nice thing for Asian Americans who are looking for films is that they have choices," he says. "It's nice to have choices." ----- Would you like a movie ticket with that weave? As urban consumers become savvier about the marketing messages that bombard their communities, companies are searching for fresh ways to target them without seeming overbearing. That means perfecting the grassroots approaches that have already proven effective. "Word of mouth is very important," explains Latraviette Smith, Edelman's director of African-American marketing. "They need to hear it from their friends. They need to see it in their community." In an instance of life following art, urban-market expert Ava DuVernay has come up with a concept she believes will highlight her client's messages in an organic way. Beginning in July, The DuVernay Agency will give entertainment projects the chance to promote their fare with video reels sent to 5,000 participating urban beauty shops nationwide through her new Urban Beauty Collective - a concept that is reminiscent of the comedy hit Barbershop. "It really came from me sitting around in beauty salons," DuVernay explains of the network in 16 top US cities. "It's not an in-and-out process. It's a four-hour minimum. "You're there swapping stories and talking. It's really an epicenter of urban culture." The tapes will feature the latest music, TV, and film projects aimed at urban audiences - and hopefully provide a pleasant way for women to pass the time while perfecting their locks. "This is a way for the entertainment community to buy into the urban community in a way that is very intimate. They don't just watch it and walk away; they watch it and talk about it."

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