John Cusack’s Viral Success Story

cuar01_proust_cusack0806.jpgCritics in the mainstream media scoffed, for the most part, at John Cusack’s low-budget didactic satire, War Inc., calling it heavy-handed and five years too late. The film struggled to get into festivals, finally making it into Tribeca this year. But on the Web, voices sang a different tune, calling War Inc. “prescient” and groundbreaking for its strange tonal shifts and for highlighting the morbid absurdity and immorality of the war in Iraq and those who profit off it. Writers such as Arianna Huffington, The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, and even British artist Damien Hirst all gave blurbs for the movie’s Web site and Cusack’s MySpace page. Juno writer Diablo Cody interviewed Cusack about it for MySpaceTV, Vanity Fair quizzed him in print and online, and I talked with him on CNBC.Despite the negative reviews, I found War Inc. innovative and subversively ironic. And it appears that early audiences are responding to it, too. Last weekend, the film opened in two theaters—one in New York, the other in Los Angeles—and grossed $50,714 after four days. Per seat, according to Cusack, who spoke to me a few days ago, its performance was second only to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The encouraging results may be proof of the power of viral marketing, an instance when the subculture becomes the culture. Today, looking bleary-eyed from London, where he is filming Shanghai for the Weinstein Company, Cusack used MySpace to talk about the success of his film and to ask people to go see it this weekend. If the figures are good enough, he said, the film will go national.

And if that happens, it won’t just be the anti-war message of the movie that is groundbreaking; War Inc. could become a model for a new, grass-roots type of marketing, in which a film’s potential audience (with a little help from the director) may be better able to advertise it than the so-called experts are. To me, that’s exciting. Just as the war’s main orchestrator in the movie, a capitalist played by Ben Kingsley, meets a gruesome end after running from an angry crowd, so too, if the drum roll is loud enough, can the views of critics be overruled by people who will see what they want to see, no matter who tells them not to.V

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