Girls Rising Documentary: Social Media Marketing Phenomenon

The producers of a new film about girls and education made Facebook and Twitter their publicists.

Ajit Solanki/AP

You don’t have to live in New York or Los Angeles to see Girl Rising, a documentary that lifts the curtain on the enormous challenges girls in developing countries face if they want to receive an education. It’s the kind of socially responsible film that would normally open only in select theaters, and then only if its producers were able to muster the marketing budget to muscle their way onto that elite circuit.

The producers of Girl Rising, a 100-minute film featuring nine stories of heroic girls from around the world, concluded that they would circumvent the traditional route of theater distribution and rely instead on social-media tools—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn—to drive their message and build a community. Girl Rising has more than 245,000 fans on Facebook, and the film will open next week. About 500 screenings have been requested nationwide, with more than 32,000 tickets pre-reserved.

“In today’s world if you can get your message out early enough, you can find your super-fan,” says Holly Gordon, executive producer, explaining that the phrase “super-fan” is borrowed from Burger King, designated for people who visit six times a week. Theaters were booked through the site, where anyone can sign up and reserve a movie theater near them with the proviso they get a hundred friends to agree to come. “Sort of like having a party in someone else’s theater,” says Gordon.

Screening the first 30 minutes of Girl Rising at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington this week, Gordon asked how many of the largely female audience are on Twitter. When almost half the hands went up, she said, “Good, I hope you’re tweeting now.” The preview featured Wadley, an 8-year-old girl in Haiti, determined to continue her schooling amidst the rubble of the island’s devastating earthquake, and Senna, who from the age of 6 had been a bonded laborer in Peru. “When you make a beautiful movie, you can touch people’s hearts,” Gordon said.

A former journalist with ABC, Gordon is the executive director of 10x10, which is dedicated to expanding education for girls. The goal was to feature 10 stories, but nine was enough to strain the budget and fill the time, so a 10th will have to wait. The filming was done over the last two years, and during that time Gordon has been feeding nuggets to social media, building what she calls a community of friends. “Let’s not wait for the big premiere to start the marketing—let’s reach the audience that’s going to care about this from the beginning,” she says.

Last year’s shooting by militants of the young Pakistani girl, Malala, for wanting to go to school highlighted the obstacles and danger for girls and brought Girl Rising to a much broader audience. “Sometimes the world coincides with the work that you’re doing,” says Gordon, who points out that Malala was shot just a couple of days before the first ever International Day of the Girl in October last year. At the Woodrow Wilson event, the rallying cry was, “Stand up for Malala; Stand up for girls’ education.” The power of the blogosphere, Gordon noted, “means people can leave a room and stand for an idea.”

Each girl was paired with a writer in her country to help tell the story in the most compelling way, and partnerships with nonprofits were forged so that if the goal of the film is realized—that goal being to generate support and funding for girls’ education—there is a network in place to do that. A strategic partnership forged early on with the global tech giant Intel gave the filmmakers access to Intel’s 100,000 employees, a workforce eager to engage with people in the far corners of the world. “If you’re under 40, it’s normal to have a friend you’ve never met,” says Gordon. “The next generation understands how intertwined we are, which is what makes transformative social change possible.”

Everything seems to be falling in place for Girl Rising. CNN’s new documentary division, announced in October, will air the film in June and has asked its reporters to find similar stories. “We kind of won the lottery here,” says Gordon. Each girl’s story is voiced by a celebrity, with Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Alicia Keys, and Kerry Washington among them. The celebrities were the last piece to fall in place—and the easiest, once Streep said yes last summer.

Traditional marketing is expensive—$100 million to promote a Harry Potter film, says Gordon—and prohibitively costly for “a little engine” like Girl Rising. Using social marketing, which is almost free, she says, “felt all along that we’re striking new ground.”