For the past two weeks, New Yorkers have been inundated with signs and pamphlets featuring either an angelic looking child or a mysterious figure in a hoodie.
Designed in the style of a missing person flier, it is, in fact, the product of a guerrilla marketing campaign for a low-budget documentary, “The Imposter.”
Directed by Bart Layton, the film tells the true story of a French man named Frédéric Bourdin who convinced an emotionally shattered Texas family that he was their long-lost child.
Picked up at this year's Sundance Film Festival by the Indomina Group for less than $1 million from A&E IndieFilms, the film opens Friday at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York. It expands to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley on Aug. 3 and to major cities like Chicago, Boston and Dallas over the next six weeks.
It’s a story filled with so many twists and turns that it is almost impossible to believe that it’s real, and indeed the film is being marketed more like a “Memento”-style thriller than a Documentary Channel feature.
“We didn’t want to go for the obvious or easy audience,” Amy Tu, executive vice president of marketing for Indomina, told TheWrap. “We really wanted to attract true crime audiences and fanboys.
To that end, Indomina decided to mount an aggressive street campaign, inspired in part by the innovative marketing that propelled “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” last year’s documentary about graffiti artist Banksy, to a $5.3 million gross worldwide.
The company went so far as to tap Range Life Entertainment, the same group that helped drum up enthusiasm for “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” to paper Manhattan cafes and telephone polls with fliers.
It also hired Marc Schiller of the consulting firm Bond Strategy and veteran publicist Cynthia Swartz of StrategyPR to help with the marketing and roll out.
(Pictured right: Sunshine Cinema display for "The Imposter")
The idea was to start a conversation around the film by teasing the mystery element of the true story.
Of course innovation can also attract controversy and in dealing with a tragic story that also happened to be real, Indomina had to tread the fine line between exhilarating and exploitative.
Tu said the company was particularly concerned that the missing child posters would be seen as tasteless in Manhattan, given the publicity surrounding new evidence in the disappearance of Etan Patz, who went missing in SoHo in 1979. Ultimately, Indomina decided to go ahead with using the pamphlets in that part of the city, but they scaled down the size of the postings.
The central image in the larger poster — that of a darkly lit figure in a hooded sweatshirt — also inspired three months of debate among the Indomina team. The concern was that the figure would evoke the Trayvon Martin case and the hoodie movement that greeted his shooting death last spring.
“We just had to keep the image; none of the other images we tried gave us what we wanted,” Tu said. “But with this particular movie, we didn’t want to use a picture of Frédéric, because he is a real person, and we didn’t want to give him too much exposure. So the question was how do you promote the film without encouraging this behavior?”
The trailer features shadowy dramatic reenactments and a soundtrack that blares “You Rascal You," a garage rock anthem by Hanni El Khatib, and has an intensity that isn’t usually a staple of the art house.
Because the television budget was virtually non-existent, Indomina had to produce a trailer that was exciting enough to get a lot of play on film fan sites. The only television time the film will get is on A&E, which retained certain home entertainment rights as part of the distribution deal.
Indomina says it was pleased with the results, with the first trailer viewed over a million times the day it hit the internet.
“It makes you want to watch,” Tu said. “It makes you curious about who this person is.”