Selling 'Act of Valor': How a Targeted Marketing Campaign Led to a Big Opening Weekend

24 REP Act of Valor
Courtesy of Navy SEALs

Relativity paid $13 million for "Act of Valor" and plans a 2012 release.

With more than 400 pre-release screenings, the studio set its sights on the military community, video gamers and young males to help a little film with no stars generate a big opening weekend.

It has no major stars, isn’t a sequel and wasn’t based on a best-seller, TV show or video game. Yet Act of Valor opened atop the North American box office with an impressive $24.5 million -- despite competition from the Academy Awards and NBA All-Star Game.

The big opening weekend for the action pic starring real Navy SEALs can be traced in part to a highly-targeted marketing campaign by distributor Relativity Media that cultivated support from the military community, video game fans, fickle male moviegoers and more.

"While what was unique about this movie was hard to present in 30 seconds, it wasn’t impossible," says Terry Curtin, Relativity's president of theatrical marketing. "We tried over and over to elevate the visceral breakthrough style of this film."

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The studio mounted its campaign over five months at a cost of about $32 million. That included special efforts to reach young men who love to play video games, and marketing muscle provided by promotional partners that yielded an estimated $8 million to $10 million in added value across electronic media, through retail outlets, on social media, at events and by supporting word-of-mouth screenings.

Part of that spend included four TV spots on Super Bowl Sunday, which Curtin admits probably led people to think Relativity spent more than it did. Only one spot came during the game, and that one cost Relativity $3.2 million. The other three, however, were before and after, and they cost $3.3 million for a total spend that day of $6.5 million.

Ticket buyers on opening weekend turned out to be 70 percent men, both old and young, liberal and conservative, from big cities and small towns --  a group that rated it an A on CinemaScore even as critics were dismissing the movie, especially the acting of its Navy SEAL stars. 

"I think a lot of people want to see something to love in America," says Relativity CEO Ryan Kavanaugh. "We're in a very odd place right now both domestically and internationally. I think this is a real message of reminding everybody of a lot of what we stand for, a lot of our principles and values."

The film was made with cooperation from the U.S. Navy, which originally approached the filmmakers about producing a nonfiction promotional movie that would accurately portray the Navy SEALs whose role in the global war on terror they felt was not properly understood.

That set co-directors Scott Waugh and Mike "Mouse" McCoy on a mission of their own. They spent a year visiting with SEALs and others military personnel and decided the project could be much more. That led them to write a highly-realistic script for what became Act of Valor with a lot of input from the SEALs themselves -- eight of whom appear in the movie.

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Getting the real SEALs and their families to perform alongside a small group of professional actors was a coup for the movie, made on a modest $13 million budget (and picked up for distribution by Relativity).

One condition was that the SEALs' names not be used in the marketing or credits. Instead, the credits include a list of more than 60 SEALs who have died in the line of duty in recent years.

"These guys are a myth," says Waugh. "They're covered in a shroud of secrecy. You never know who they are. Then when you meet them, you realize they're ordinary guys. They just do extraordinary things, so it's captivating. That’s why we wanted to use real SEALs."

After the movie was made, the filmmakers also received support from the U.S. Department of Defense, which helped open doors for screenings at military bases like the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla,; the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C.; the Joint Base at Little Creek in Virginia Beach, Va.; and the Naval Air Station at North Island in Coronado, Calif., where many of the real-life SEALs who took part in the movie were based.

At the heart of Relativity's efforts to sell the movie was an outreach to the U.S. military at every level and to first-responders -- police, firemen, emergency workers -- who were invited to attend more than 415 screenings since October, many of them on American military bases. There was even a screening for President Obama at the White House.

"A lot of military personnel at various levels attended those screenings," says Curtin. "They also were attended by thought leaders and other people."

At many of the screenings, Waugh and McCoy -- known professionally as the Bandito Brothers -- appeared and answered questions from the audience.

Waugh says that when Act of Valor was just a script and an idea, the Hollywood studios refused to finance the movie out of concern about the lack of stars, so they raised the money from private investors. "We said to Hollywood in the beginning that we don’t have stars, we have heroes" recalls Waugh. "They are real heroes. I think some eyes got opened up about our statement over the past year."

Following the screening at the White House, Obama said, "These are my guys, referring to the Navy SEALs," recalls Relativity president Tucker Tooley. "He was very complimentary."

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Author Tom Clancy appeared. Known for such military-themed thrillers as Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Hunt for Red October, Clancy took a presentation credit on the novelization of the movie, which was written by Dick Couch and George Galdorisi and based on the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (300). Berkeley Books and Brilliance Audio are releasing paperbacks and audio books of the novelization.

But it was the active military for whom Relativity really rolled out the red carpet. "In our screening program, we made sure to center a lot of those screenings around locations where there is strong military concentrations," says Curtin, who had her own stake in the outcome above and beyond her professional role.

Curtin grew up on the Coronado base where her father was a Navy fighter pilot and where her brother served when he became a Navy pilot. Her family includes two grandfathers who were Navy admirals, and her great-grandfather, who also was an admiral, helped found Navy aviation. Her mother’s two brothers and two first cousins are all Naval Academy grads.

"It's very personal," says Curtin. "There is even a destroyer named after my two uncles, my grandfather and great grandfather. Everybody in my family has served."

After the film was finished, the Bandito Brothers held a screening for distributors and had multiple offers to release the movie, many from studios that had refused to finance it because it lacked stars. Waugh says they chose Relativity not only because of a $13 million payment and a promise to spend at least $30 million on marketing, but also because of Curtin and her passion.

"We felt Terry Curtin really understood the movie and didn't want to make it something that it wasn’t," says Waugh. "It's not 'SEAL Team 6: The Movie,' that you hear about. We really appreciated their approach. That's why we went with them. It wasn't about the money. It was what they wanted to do with the film."

At the premiere in Hollywood, about half the audience consisted of SEALs or other military, most in uniform, along with first responders, Hollywood executives, the media and others. Guests were greeted outside the theater by the sight of six Navy SEALs parachuting from an airplane onto Sunset Boulevard, which was closed off for the premiere.

Along with the screening program and advertising, Relativity went all out to create a buzz around the picture. It partnered with Clear Channel, which put it front and center on radio stations all over the country through contests, screenings and promotions. "That brought (to screenings) everybody from Rush Limbaugh for the conservatives to Ryan Seacrest for a broad audience," says Curtin. "The radio stations were engaged. We got lots of DJ endorsements. The partnership with Clear Channel played a big part on a regional level, helping fill screenings and getting the word out."

Curtin also credits a partnership with Electronic Arts and the fact the movie plays much like a video game. When the game Battlefield 3 debuted in October, selling more than 10 million copies, Act of Valor was tied in on every level. The trailer played on the EA website, and in order to get exclusive downloads of additional content, the gamers had to watch the Act of Valor commercial.

Then, leading to the opening, anyone who bought two tickets on Fandango got access to more exclusive downloadable content for the game. "So that young-male action audience really was aware," says Curtin. "We tapped into them, we really nurtured them with this gaming association."

That effort was bolstered by use of social media, from Facebook to YouTube, much of it aimed at gamers. There was also unabashed patriotism, which helped bring in older males who don't go to a lot of movies. They solicited people to create their own videos thanking the SEALs, some of which were cut into TV spots for the film.

Marketers created a program for theaters, and at screenings they handed out pre-addressed postcards that allowed people to thank the SEALs as well. The cards also had web links to sites about the SEALs.

Relativity worked closely with a number of military organizations and charities, especially the Navy SEAL Foundation and the Navy SEAL Family Foundation, both of which are non-governmental groups.

There was a program with by which ticket buyers were prompted to make a donation to the Navy SEAL Foundation.

There also was targeted outreach to nine groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, the sports audience, the action audience and political conservatives.

To supplement its own marketing efforts -- which included paid advertising and publicity -- Relativity did numerous promotions with partners.

Miller High Life created an integrated campaign that included placement in the film, premiere sponsorship and programs to share experiences among veterans. They also were provided with tickets to many of the screenings, which they then used as part of their promotions, some with partners such as Operation Homefront, which provides assistance for veterans and their families.

"While our collaboration with Act of Valor began with the filmmakers, we were able to expand the relationship with Relativity to deliver on our promise to help members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Operation Homefront to enjoy a little piece of the high life – providing veterans access to exclusive screening experiences," says Brendan Noonan, brand manager for Miller High Life.

Relativity also partnered with LifeLock, an industry leader in identity theft protection, to implement sweepstakes to win a trip to the Los Angeles premiere and free movie tickets via social media promotions on Facebook. In addition, they created co-branded television spots that aired across Military Channel, ESPN and the Discovery Network to further promote the film.
There also were promotions with outdoor retailer Bass Pro Shop, which promoted Act of Valor screenings in more than 20 markets via direct mail, e-mail and social media outlets reaching almost 1.5 million followers. The outdoors retailer also executed employee contests, custom store displays in more than 45 plus stores across the country and store scavenger hunts using Snap-Tag technology via mobile communication on behalf of the film.

Other promotional partners included watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre; gear manufacturer 5.11 Tactical; video production software provider Adobe Creative Suite; tech company NVIDIA; tactical communications systems maker Silynx Communications; and athletic gear manufacturer Oakley.  

Still, Curtin is adamant none of it would have mattered if Relativity did not have a movie that worked for the audience it targeted. "We were really diligent in communicating to people what was  unique about the movie," she says. "It opened a window on a world we don’t usually get to see."

Corrected on Feb. 29, 2012 at 9:12 p.m. PST.