HOME TOWNIES . . . NOT: The Bushes adopted Crawford for its folksy cachet.
It took three years and $100,000, but when his documentary film had its online premiere earlier this month, local boy David Modigliani made history and became an overnight success in fewer than 12 hours.
The film, Crawford, takes a look at the sleepy town in Texas that President George W. Bush conveniently began to call home in the lead-up to his first presidential run. On October 7, Crawford premiered on hulu.com, the seven-month-old Web site from NBC and News Corp. that streams TV shows and movies in high quality for free. It was the first-ever online premiere of a full-length feature film (history made? check), and in the three days following its debut, the film drew more viewers than either An Inconvenient Truth or March of the Penguins did on their opening weekends (overnight success!).
The reason for this insta-celebrity? After watching Crawford online, viewers can post the film directly on Facebook pages, blogs, and Web sites. “It’s astounding,” says Modigliani. “We’re putting the distribution in the hands of the people.” (Like Facebook videos, this option applies to all current Hulu programming.)
A Brookline native and Harvard alum, Modigliani was living in Austin, Texas, and trying to hack it as a playwright when he decided on a whim to take a trip to Crawford and see Bush’s “hometown” for himself. Always a believer of the Bush-from-Texas story, he was shocked to find a town to which the president had no real ties. “I felt duped,” he says. “He used the small town to create a folksy persona — one that I had bought.” Modigliani spent the next three years interviewing Crawford’s 705 residents and documented how they suffered as the president’s popularity dropped and tourists, media, and money left town. Stores closed, jobs became scarce, and morale plummeted.
The film first screened publicly at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in March. Reviews in Variety and on politico.com and screenings at 30 festivals worldwide followed, but no solid offers came through from production companies. So in August, Modigliani and the film’s distributor, B-Side Entertainment, began talks with Hulu. The site paid nothing to acquire Crawford, but will share in the revenue generated from advertisements that intermittently interrupt the movie.
The upshot of distributing the film online rather than in theaters is exposure. Since it went up, the film each day has been the most watched of any on Hulu, says Modigliani. (Hulu and Modigliani are bound by contract not to release numbers.) Another plus is fast feedback. “People don’t usually talk in a lobby after a film, so this means they’re existing in a sort of cyber lobby post-film,” the filmmaker explains.
The downside is that Modigliani must rely on the sale of DVDs (crawfordmovie.com and amazon.com carry it now for $19.99), rather than tickets, in order to see a profit. But the filmmaker is optimistic. “So many people have watched it so far,” he says, “that if we believe in this notion that the more people see it, the more will buy it, hopefully we’ll get a good financial return.”