How ‘Sleepwalk With Me’ Used Social Media, Public Radio to Become an Indie Hit

Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass traveled the country, tweeted and sent Facebook messages to drive "Sleepwalk With Me" to a $2 million gross

So how does a quirky story of an aspiring comedian with a sleepwalking disorder become a breakout indie film?

The answer for "Sleepwalk With Me" was a smart — and cheap — promotional campaign that relied heavily on social media.

In one YouTube video, Joss Whedon begs moviegoers not to see "Sleepwalk With Me." In another, "Fresh Air"s' Terry Gross and "Sleepwalk'"s director, co-writer and star Mike Birbiglia are caught cracking a safe.

Then there were co-writer Ira Glass' 36,000 Twitter followers, Birbiglia's 176,000 followers and the 584,000 Facebook fans of Glass' popular radio show, "This America Life." All were peppered with updates on the film and information about how they could pressure art houses to bring the project to their area. 

As a result, "Sleepwalk With Me" is poised to hit $2 million in ticket sales domestically this weekend. 

In just over a month of release, it has more than doubled its production budget and will net a profit for its backers. 

What makes that accomplishment all the more surprising is that it hit those impressive numbers without boasting any A-list actors.

"This was really just about necessity," Birbiglia told TheWrap. "Frankly, because our movie doesn't have any stars and we don't have a high concept or any of the things that big distributors put a lot of money behind these days, our ad budget was a fraction of what it would be compared to other films. We had no choice but to think of ourselves as the ad budget." 

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The "This American Life" connection didn't hurt.

"I think that the 'This American Life' audience is very media savvy and just a social-media-heavy audience," said Brian Bedol, CEO of Bedrocket Media Ventures, one of the film's main backers. "So the whole strategy was to incubate it within the 'This American Life' crowd over the last couple of years, so the seed was planted and could just grow from there." 

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In fact, before the film even hit theaters, Birbiglia and Glass were using social media to draw "This American Life" fans into the production process.

The filmmakers would post information about screenings of the unfinished film on "This American Life's" Facebook page — without even giving out the name of the project or cast details. The fan base proved so rabid that they filled theaters simply on the promise of a free film.

Birbiglia said that the screenings not only allowed the "Sleepwalk With Me" team to foster word-of-mouth, it helped the editors know what jokes were landing.

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But nothing topped a series of viral videos featuring Gross and Whedon, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator and director of "The Avengers." Glass tapped his Rolodex to get both celebrities to participate; in the case of Whedon the finished project was shot and sent in without any editorial input from the "Sleepwalk" team.

The Whedon video, in which the filmmaker urges audiences to boycott the film because it would be opening on nearly the same number of theaters that were playing his superhero film, attracted nearly 200,000 views on YouTube.

The Gross video was an even more delightfully absurdist experience that featured the talk-show host peppering Birbiglia with questions about his life as they rob a bank; an experience that ends in a bloody shoot-out. It garnered over 260,000 views on YouTube.

"There are certain films that just lend themselves to social media marketing," Ryan Werner, senior vice president of marketing at "Sleepwalk With Me"s' distributor IFC Films, said. "The Joss Whedon video was just huge, because it created all this buzz. Those online videos allowed us to do something different and not just put clips up, because that's generic and everyone does that."

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Werner describes the entire marketing as collaborative with the IFC team meeting weekly with Birbiglia and Glass to talk strategy and routinely keeping "This American Life"s' social media team in the loop about promotions.

Marketing didn't just involve Facebook messaging and micro-blogging. It also called for Birbiglia and Glass to go on tour.

In the first weekend, the pair did 35 question and answer sessions at New York City's IFC Center, which helped them net $68,801 in sales, a record-breaking per-screen average for a first-time director.

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And they didn't just stop at Manhattan's borders. Over the last month, they've been showing up in cities across the country, everywhere from San Francisco, Calif., to Washington, D.C., to introduce the film and rap with audiences.

"It basically came down to us chaperoning the film around the country," Birbiglia said. "We joke that we're not allowing it out without adult supervision."

That's an unbelievable time commitment on the part of any filmmaker, but Bedol said "Sleepwalk With Me" would never have gotten a distributor had it not been for the pair's willingness to serve as billboards for their project.

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"That was a big part of our presentation to distributors — that these guys were going to work their tails off to make this thing a success," Bedol said. "The reason we got involved was we didn't feel Mike and Ira would just make a movie and move onto whatever was next. We knew they looked at it as a multimedia and multi-platform experience."

Birbiglia admits that the tour has been exhausting, but says that he's proud of the film and eager to employ the same kind of gorilla marketing campaign on his next film.

"Nobody quite understands what gets people to turn off their TVs and go out to movie theaters," Birbiglia said. "Everybody is just trying out a lot of different things and there has to be a lot of trial and error and a real sense that there are no bad ideas."