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“The Dude” Invites You Upriver

‘The Dude’ talks about the sixties counterculture, John Kerry, Vietnam, and how it all relates to the new documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry.

Jeff ‘The Dude’ Dowd is an independent producer representative and film marketing consultant who may appear cool, casual, and collected, but don’t let his outwardly appearance fool you. Known by everyone as ‘The Dude’ — he was the inspiration for the main character in the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski — Dowd is a man who has fire in him and when you get him talking about a subject like politics or film, like the new documentary he is promoting, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, he will talk your ear off.

Yes, Dowd is a walking, talking marketing guru who won’t let you forget it, but he also has a mission. He not only wants you to see the movie Going Upriver, he wants you to feel it, absorb it, understand it, and then go out and tell all of your friends to go see it and then – when they are available – buy a handful of DVDs to give to your neighbors.

I talked with Dowd for an hour and was able to squeeze in a few questions while he descanted at length about many subjects including the counterculture, Vietnam, Ben Franklin, and the marketing strategy for The Blair Witch Project.

Below are a scant few excerpts from our conversation.

What We Learned about Marketing With Another Vietnam Movie:
As the [Vietnam] War was scaling down a movie called Hearts and Minds came out, which won the Academy Award. It was produced by Bert Schneider who did a number of great movies [Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show]. I got a call from Bert that the movie was going to open in Seattle at an exhibitors’ screening. I went to see it, and I was blown away. The next day I met a guy name Randy Finley who had one theatre in Seattle. The film was booked for one week in another theatre and I said, ‘Would you be willing to take a testimonial ad out in the paper saying all these things you are saying to me to see the film in your competitor’s theatre?’ And he said absolutely. He took a 5′ x 7′ ad out in the paper. I then parlayed that into a lot of news stories because it was an angle for them. I got permission to give out 3,000 tickets which we gave to every Republican, every Democrat, every civic leader, people in the anti-war movement and schools. And based on word of mouth it went on to play for 17 weeks and broke the house record that was held by some sex movie like Emmanuelle. That’s how I got involved in grassroots marketing. With Going Upriver I got a call from George Butler, the director of this film. I met with him in May and told him I would help him work on it for free.

What Test Audiences Taught Us:
When you see a film like this you wonder who it will appeal to. I did the tests for Hoosiers. The producers at that time at Orion said this is about sports. No one goes to sports movies. Women will never go to this. So we tested it and what we learned was that not only did women like it they liked it more than men. So that informed our strategy and the film went on to gross $30 million. Will Going Upriver appeal to people who don’t like Kerry or who aren’t sure of Kerry? We had a test screening about three weeks ago and it was one of the more sophisticated screening tests I had been in 30 years. We discovered that 79 percent of the people who were neither Kerry nor Bush supporters but who were affected by the negative Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads said that they were profoundly moved by this movie. It had changed their mind about Kerry’s ability to lead.

Release Strategy:
We can’t take out TV or radio ads because we are within 60 days of the election, so we really need the help on the internet. We open in 200 theatres on October 1 and thankfully we have people like moveon.org which sent out 3 million e-mails, and we are tied in with the Vote for Change rock tour where we have volunteers who are giving out 300,000 postcards at 40 concerts. If this goes well in the coming weeks we will be able to spread out across the country, particularly into the swing states.

The Importance of Free Speech:
A couple nights ago in Phoenix we were stopped by security guards. As if people at a Vote For Change tour wouldn’t want to see this? John Peter Zenger and Ben Franklin used to give out pamphlets against King George and they were banned from doing that. One of the reasons it is in the Constitution that you have freedom of press and freedom of speech is exactly for that reason. And here we are in Bush world in 2004 and we are being stopped from giving out a flier that has great quotes about a movie. Fortunately, Springsteen’s manager and other people heard about this and they are arranging to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Thank God democracy and freedom of the press are still on the internet.

The Value of the Internet:
You could get Lord of the Rings on the internet the night before it was released. I’m sure someone will get this on the internet by hook or by crook, but that’s good. College students with broadband will be able to download it. By the way, The Blair Witch Project and Fahrenheit 9/11 were both available on the internet with the approval of the filmmakers – or tacit approval. Why? Because they knew they had a strong word-of-mouth picture. What we’re doing is what’s never been done with any movie: simultaneously putting in the theatres and releasing it on DVD on October 19th.

Comparing Fahrenheit 9/11 With Going Upriver:
Fahrenheit 9/11 is very moving when you see the woman responding to her son’s death in Iraq. And Michael Moore is a smart enough director to show one individual and focus on how that person made a change. You see that woman who is totally pro-American and pro-war start to understand and question the war because of what happens to her son. Now this movie does the same thing except we see an entire generation make the change and Kerry was one of them. Michael’s movie provokes you to think and question a whole bunch of things. This movie does the same thing but with lots of characters and deeply personal stories.

What Going Upriver Teaches Us:
One of the things we see in this movie is when one of Kerry’s best friends [Frank Richard Pershing] died early in the war. That profoundly affected Kerry. You see the innocent, heroic, patriotic guys that go over there begin to question the war. A lot of people say, ‘Gee, you’re being unpatriotic if you criticize a war while it is going on and you have men in harm’s way’. Well people have always criticized war. In the case of Vietnam, the patriotic thing to do was bring our boys home. Like Kerry said, ‘How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?’ And you see in the movie, when these guys make that decision to throw back their medals… personally to admit at that moment and say, ‘I was part of a big mistake,’ the profound depth of that is so heavy. Kerry and everybody else understood that we were pursuing a policy to kill and maim victims who we were supposedly there helping.

Will the movie help Kerry?
This movie at least lays the foundation of who Kerry was. It
trumps the character assassination done by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. That’s why it’s so important for everyone to go see the movie. I guarantee you that everybody who sees this movie at this point who is anti-Kerry will come out saying, ‘I learned so much from this movie.’ We want people to make informed decisions. They can see the movie and still vote for Bush but at least they will be more informed than they will when they watch the 30-second sound bites that the campaigns are using. And the movie will ‘carry’ itself from there. No pun intended.

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