‘Lone Survivor’ Enlists Football Players as Boosters

The Wall Street Journal – December 18, 2013

In the moments following Florida State’s blowout win over Clemson in October, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher attributed the victory to teamwork—and to something rather unusual.

Players “understand the importance of what the guy next to them is doing. We learned that last night in a film called ‘Lone Survivor,’ ” Mr. Fisher told a packed room of reporters. “I’m gonna tell you something, y’all are in for something coming up.”

Mr. Fisher said the players were quoting lines from the film during the 51-14 romp of the No. 3 team in the country. “You talk about eye-opening, life-changing,” he said. Within hours, Twitter screens and FSU fan message boards filled up with discussions about the comments.

Scenes like this have played out in locker rooms and coaches offices’ across America, where the film, which stars Mark Wahlberg and Taylor Kitsch and opens nationwide Jan. 10, has found a secret weapon: football players.

In the last four months, the film’s producers have enjoyed a wave of positive word-of-mouth after employing a rare form of target-marketing. The filmmakers have screened the film for teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, the University of Alabama, the Carolina Panthers and the Cleveland Browns. Stars such as Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning have raved about the film and lined up to speak with the film’s subject, retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. A day or two later, of course, comes the report in local media about the team-building exercise.

The film tells the story of the ill-fated Operation Red Wings, a 2005 mission by Navy SEALs in Afghanistan. The director, Peter Berg, hatched the first screening with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones during training camp. Mr. Berg said that when word got around about how the Cowboys rallied around the film, NFL owners and executives were asking for screenings of their own. He says it’s not just a marketing ploy: “It’s as much just a cool thing to do.”

Still, the movie is no sure thing. It opens a limited engagement in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day—which means the studio wants it to be considered for 2014 Oscars—but it hasn’t stood out in this fall’s Golden Globes nominations and critics’ awards.Others have warned that the film’s realistic violence might disturb some audiences.

But players who have seen the movie say it is essentially the perfect film to get football players talking. Based on Mr. Luttrell’s 2007 book of the same name, the film is a two-hour mountain shootout that focuses on an operation gone wrong and the battle for survival that follows. All of the issues testosterone-fueled NFL players love—such as loyalty, brotherhood and toughness—are baked into the action. The film has garnered NFL attention, including coaches and Commissioner Roger Goodell, who saw an early screening with some of his top deputies.

Marc Schiller, CEO of Bond Strategy and Influence, a film-distribution strategy company, said the idea of finding “tastemakers” to screen films isn’t new, but specifically aiming for football players is fairly unusual. “More and more, these types of experiences—people going on social media and talking about a film—are exactly what you need to make a film work,” he said.

Mr. Schiller spearheaded a similar move when he showed the racing film “Senna” to race-car drivers. Football players, he noted, are the perfect targets to create a viral smash. His research shows that the most effective social-media influencers aren’t the ones with the most-followed feeds, with millions of followers and limited engagement with fans, but rather celebrities with 50,000 to 700,000 followers. “That type of influencer would be playing college football,” he said.

If the Washington Redskins’ locker room is any guide to those of the other teams exposed to “Lone Survivor,” the players can’t wait to be part of an unofficial viral-marketing campaign in support of the film. Washington Redskins players said they were told not to say too much about the film until it is close to being out to theaters. “You can’t stop social media,” said Redskins fullback Darrel Young. “Every player here wants to be the guy to be known as the guy who saw it first.” Cornerback David Amerson said he’s “told a lot of people to be sure they go see it.”

Other players are less voluble about the film. Steve Gera, an operations assistant for the Cleveland Browns and a former Marine, said the movie was so personal to many of the players—especially those that have families in the military—that he doesn’t know if they’ll be tweeting about the film.

“I think because the movie is so intense, you sort of internalize it. Everyone sort of brings something different out of it. I haven’t really seen any of the guys express anything in public,” Mr. Gera said.

Mr. Berg has some experience screening films for teams. He showed his beloved New York Giants a previous film, the 2007 Mideast-set action thriller “The Kingdom.” This time, he didn’t get to schedule a screening with the Giants. But his training-camp showing to their top rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, produced an intense motivational speech from star defender DeMarcus Ware, who yelled at teammates saying the movie put things in perspective and fired him up. Mr. Berg had that in mind in week one of this NFL season, on the first play, when Mr. Ware intercepted Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

“I’m sitting there thinking, maybe I shouldn’t have shown the Cowboys the movie,” Mr. Berg said.

by Kevin Clark