LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Heavy metal act Anvil has struggled in obscurity for decades, but with an old-fashioned documentary and a new-fangled social-media service at its disposal, the band might be poised for a bit of a breakthrough.
Not that it's going to be easy to do so, said Sacha Gervasi, the director of "Anvil! The Story of Anvil." "On paper, this film is impossible to sell: Heavy metal. Documentary. Two bullets in the head right there."
But one of the things shielding the enterprise's head-banging skull has been the great goodwill Anvil engenders from established recording artists who've been shown the film: Watching three winsome, unassuming Canadian stoners spend 30 years living out their dream of being rock stars, if only travel-size ones, proves hugely heartening to established recording artists all too familiar with the cynical side of the record business.
Luckily for Anvil, some of the band's newfound fans have Twitter accounts, and at the suggestion of Viacom's cable music network VH1, those far-more-prominent musicians are now using the free social-messaging service to help sell the movie: John Mayer this week began evangelizing the film to his 1,018,840 Twitter followers; so have celebs such as Mandy Moore (381,349), Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor (484,124) and Good Charlotte frontman Joel Madden (120,410). In theory, some 2,067,450 Twitter followers have gotten word this week that "Anvil!" is not to be missed in the 25 cities where it's playing this weekend.
'Not twisting anyone's arm'
VH1 technically has no financial stake in the theatrical release of the film, which Mr. Gervasi financed himself with the proceeds of his day job as a Hollywood screenwriter. (He penned 2004's "The Terminal" for Steven Spielberg.) But the Viacom music channel has acquired the TV and DVD rights to the documentary, and is negotiating to release Anvil's next album. As such, the channel will only benefit from the theatrical success of "Anvil! The Story of Anvil."
So with no major studio marketing the indie doc, VH1 decided to help market "Anvil!" to moviegoers via its relationships with the Twittering music celebs and with on-air promotions.
Rick Krim, VH1's exec VP-talent and music programming, said the music celebs aren't being paid or forced to tweet about the film. "We're not twisting anyone's arm," he said. "We're guiding them so that they give out the correct information to get the word out."
Nigel Cox-Hagan, exec VP-creative and marketing at VH1, said the reliance on Twitter is both strategic and stopgap.
"The movie was lighting in a bottle, and it came to us in February, when a lot of our consumer budget was already committed or spent," said Mr. Cox-Hagan. "Faced with certain fiduciary and logistical constraints, we turned and said 'How can we best support it?'"
No formula for documentaries
To reach the same 2 million Twitter music lovers online, Mr. Cox-Hagan said VH1 would have normally had to "buy banners ads, put up some videos and use search-engine marketing."
And had it been hyping any other film genre, it might have done just that.
"But we all understand that it's the rare documentary that reaches blockbuster levels of success," he said. "Unlike horror films, or comedies, there's no set formula for what gets you a blockbuster [documentary]."
Examining documentary box-office data and its own limited marketing budget, VH1 decided a one-two punch of national promotion on VH1 and sibling MTV, backed up by Twitter, was the better media play for its dollars.
Mr. Cox-Hagan declined to share the theoretical cost of reaching 2 million music fans with online advertising -- but he also insisted that comparing that with 2 million Tweets isn't ultimately germane, anyway.
"When they're getting tweets from celebrity fans of the movie, they feel a little closer and intimately engaged in the story," said Mr. Cox-Hagan. "And when consumers re-tweet [to their friends], it's an intimate connection you can't get from a mere piece of video or a banner ad. We can literally see the engagement and follow it. There's a transparent value."
VH1's decision to forsake the usual loads of TV commercials used to open a film and stick to the free Twitter and far cheaper VH1 and MTV promotional spots also comes from documentaries' checkered track record at the box office.
Fox Searchlight, Mr. Gervasi pointed out, discovered this the hard way with 2007's "Young@Heart" another feel-good music documentary about a New England group of senior citizens who perform contemporary and classic rock and pop songs.
"It made a little under $4 million at the box office, and it took them $8 million [in marketing support] to get there," said Mr. Gervasi, who himself is being advised by a former Searchlight executive, Josh Deighton.
"We would not go into this project with the expectation of getting an effective return on investment for an $8 million outlay," Mr. Mr. Cox-Hagan said.
Gauging the hot topics
Showing restraint is understandable, said Bingham Ray, the former president of United Artists, who marketed the first documentary blockbuster, Michael Moore's 2003 film, "Bowling for Columbine," but he noted it could also leave some money on the table.
This is especially true with documentaries, whose audiences usually skew older. "At some point, you're going to want to reach an age [group] which doesn't get its information online, that doesn't 'tweet' or 'YouTube,'" Mr. Ray explained.
In the meantime, though, Hollywood's eyes are on Twitter, which has said its future rests on refining the service's search capabilities to help marketers better understand what content and topics are hot, moment by moment.
Mr. Cox-Hagan said that kind of timely data would be invaluable for gauging which TV spots or online ads are working best to sell a film or show.
But, he added, "I feel safe in saying we're in a learning stage. Obviously, those metrics need to come from Twitter, not just us."