The phrase ''viral spread'' may make you want to dive under the covers with a SARS mask, but for a number of independent filmmakers, those two words signify a marketing strategy that's revolutionizing the distribution process. This past month alone, there are two lucky beneficiaries. Better Luck Tomorrow, a film about four Asian Americans by a first-time director, made for $250,000, grossed an average of $27,752 per site its opening weekend, more than twice Anger Management's per-site average. And then there's Bend It Like Beckham, a British movie about a soccer-loving Sikh teen, which made an average of $10,000 per theater in its fourth week, double that of last year's word-of-mouth smash, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the all-time indie box office champ with a total take of more than $240 million. What's pushed these movies over the art-house edge? Both have benefited from marketing campaigns that combine the power of word of mouth with the muscle of the Web.
With Better Luck Tomorrow, directed by Justin Lin, ''there was a great viral, underground, subversive spread about the movie,'' says Van Toffler, the president of MTV Films, which acquired the movie at Sundance in 2002. ''It spread in the community, and out of curiosity, they went to see it.'' MTV is betting audiences will continue to see it: On April 25, Luck will widen to 100 markets. Fox Searchlight hopes that Beckham, which is currently on a total of 392 screens, will also expand further.
Both Better Luck Tomorrow and director Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham are propelled by forces that the most well-heeled studio couldn't pay for: volunteer e-mail organizations that let their members know when and where a niche film is opening, and then remind them not only to get out the first weekend but to keep going. In the case of both these films, the organization is APA First Weekend, an Asian-American group; there are similar campaigns for gay and lesbian, Latino, and African-American groups, which have boosted movies such as Barbershop, Real Women Have Curves, Brown Sugar, and El Crimen del Padre Amaro. An Armenian e-mail campaign helped Ararat score at the box office.
David Magdael founded APA in 2000 after hearing peers say they weren't supporting Asian-American films because they didn't know they existed. ''I noticed there was a list for black and gay first-weekend clubs, so I said, 'Let that be a base,''' says Magdael, who also coruns TC:DM and Associates, an entertainment and public affairs company that was hired to do additional publicity on Better Luck Tomorrow. ''I started with 60 people, e-mailing about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the e-mails just kept getting forwarded. Then one time I sent the list out on AOL and it bounced back and said, 'You can't send this to 8,000 people.''' APA has been raising awareness for both Beckham and Tomorrow since even before the movies screened at Sundance.
While it's impossible to make a direct connection between the e-mail campaigns and box office, ask Van Toffler how much he thinks word of mouth is related to Luck's success and he says, ''Oh, pretty much all of it. It's a minority cast, it's a first-time filmmaking group, and it by no means has a happy ending.''