Head to the mountains (and fields): Real-world movie sets boost tourism campaigns, from Iowa to Iceland

June 26, 2006

Copyright © 2006 PRSA.  All rights reserved.
The following article will appear in the July issue of PR Tactics.
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By Chris Cobb

The tourism business can be as tough as it gets for PR professionals, but, for the fortunate ones, along comes a blockbuster Hollywood movie.

Take Alberta, Canada, northern home of the Rocky Mountains and some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. The PR team at Alberta’s Tourism Commission, typically competing for tourist attention with Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, was heading into a regular season earlier this year — marketing the province in the lucrative U.S., European and Japanese markets on its magnificent natural merits.

Then “Brokeback Mountain” fell into their lap.

The movie, set in Wyoming but filmed in Alberta, was nominated for eight Academy Awards (it won three) in 2006.  Around the same time, the tourism folks in Alberta imported cowboys into Manhattan to promote the province at The New York Times travel show.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

Days after the Alberta cowboys performed rope tricks and talked up the merits of Alberta with locals in Times Square, the Academy released its list of 2005 nominees. The PR team at Alberta Tourism saw an opportunity to build on the New York campaign and switched into full-leverage mode.

The task, according to Don Boynton, communications director of Travel Alberta, was to leap onto the “Brokeback” bandwagon and get word out that the spectacular vistas in the movie were actually Alberta. Working on several fronts simultaneously, Boynton’s team bought space for a massive billboard in Times Square and posted a feature article on www.travelalberta.com about the production of the movie and included maps showing where scenes were shot. The boost in Web site traffic was almost immediate.

“‘Brokeback’ was causing a sensation among media, especially in the United States,” Boynton tells Tactics, “and it took us a little by surprise. We had to decide how to use the celebrity of the movie to draw attention to Alberta, which was a bit of a challenge because of the story being set in Wyoming.”

The Alberta Tourism PR team’s goal with the U.S. media was simple: to get “Brokeback Mountain” and Alberta mentioned as often as possible in the same stories and during the same media interviews. Perhaps the clearest sign that the campaign was working came when the stars of the movie, including leads Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, appeared on “Oprah”on Jan. 27.

“To our great delight, she asked them where the movie was filmed,” Boynton says.
He says he won’t be able to tell how well the “Brokeback” campaign is working until summer’s end, but several local, European and Asian travel companies are selling “Brokeback Mountain” tours of the province. That, coupled with heavy traffic on the Web site, strongly suggests that “Brokeback” will be a significant boost to an Albertan tourism industry worth $5 billion a year and employing 130,000 people.

Benches, bridges and fields

It may be too early in the year for Alberta to measure its Hollywood connection, but there are scores of examples where the pulling power of a successful movie is proved year after year. New York City and Los Angeles, where production sets are part of the daily backdrop, are loaded with movie-related tourist traps, but other, less obvious locations are also getting major PR boosts from their Hollywood connections.

In Savannah, Ga., for example, the “Forrest Gump” bench ranks as one of the city’s biggest magnets for tourists, many of whom are drawn to the city because of the 1997 movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

“Movies that tie history with a real location are a real draw to tourists,” says independent movie producer Peter Wentworth who lives in the Charleston, S.C. area and is best known for producing Whit Stillman’s 1990 Academy Award-nominated “Metropolitan.”  “In Charleston, the miniseries ‘North and South’ did more to create the tourist destination that Charleston is than any other pop culture anchor. Travel promotion is clearly part of the collateral benefits to recruiting motion pictures.”

Indeed, Charleston’s Chamber of Commerce hired a full-time employee  in 1914 to work exclusively on a campaign to bring motion pictures to the region because they saw the potential link between movies and tourist dollars. (According to Wentworth, who knows the history of movie shoots in the area, the Ediston Company shot four films in Charleston in 1914 and set up a very makeshift studio.)

Shoeless Joe Jackson and Kevin Costner left the Lansing family farm in 1989, but the “Field of Dreams” they left behind in Dyersville, Iowa, has been a perennial tourist draw ever since. Throughout the year, tourists flock to Dyersville to play ball or just sit in the bleachers and soak up the atmosphere — and, of course, spend copious dollars on “Field of Dreams” and baseball paraphernalia. (The site itself has free admission.)

“I’ve been there on beautiful sunny days and cold blistery days,” says Nancy Landess, manager at the Iowa State Tourism office in Des Moines. “And every time I see license plates from out of state and I see people playing catch, sitting in the bleachers and running the bases. When you step out onto the field, or sit in those bleachers, it is a magical experience.”

The strength of the “Field of Dreams” brand is phenomenal. She adds: “Everyone knows what you’re talking about if you say ‘If you build it, they will come.’ ”

The 1995 movie “Bridges of Madison County” has also turned into tourist gold for Iowa, and the tourism office uses images from the film as part of its promotional material.

“We feel very fortunate to have these two movies,” Landess says.

Iceland calling

Entire countries have also clued into the value of movie shoots, and Iceland is a prime example.

Iceland and its rugged landscape have long been a favorite location for commercials — Mercedes, Hummer and Nissan are among the many companies that have filmed there — but more important for its tourism business are the likes of  “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” the James Bond extravaganza “Die Another Day” and, due in August, Clint Eastwood’s “The Flags of Our Fathers.”

“From a PR point of view, the exposure Iceland gets from a major production is enormous,” says Iceland’s New York-based trade commissioner Hlynur Gudjonsson.  “When people see the scenery, as they did in ‘Tomb Raider’ and ‘Die Another Day,’ the exceptional images increase people’s interest in the country.”

Eastwood was so moved by his experience that he presented the Icelandic PR community with a flattering quote that they now use prominently on promotional material.
“Flying over the black sand beaches and lava fields, I could see that Iceland had the rugged and unusual look we needed for our film,” said Eastwood. “The open roads and undisturbed countryside remind me of the way America was 50 years ago. With such gorgeous scenery and delicious fish and even golf, Iceland made for a terrific filming location.”

Travel to Iceland has increased steadily during the past two years, says Gudjonsson, and is increasing at a faster rate than tourism to European destinations, Iceland’s major competitors for visitor dollars.

“As far as Iceland is concerned,” he adds, “what you see in the movies is what you get: glaciers, beautiful clean beaches and black sand.”

Back in Alberta, Don Boynton and his team eagerly await the Sept. 15 release of  “The Assassination of  Jesse James,”  featuring Brad Pitt in the title role, which has already given them a taste of what may come.

Filming earlier this year was done at the height of the Pitt-Angelina Jolie dating frenzy, and, although the set was closed and access strictly limited to those associated with the production, photographs that caught the couple in their spare time were published across the world.

“The power of celebrity is enormous,” says Boynton. “The paparazzi followed them everywhere when they were here.”

Pitt and Jolie took her children to Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, home of a renowned collection of dinosaur fossils. The museum closed especially for the occasion and gave them a private tour. But word got out, as it usually does in these situations, and the museum was on the front page of most every supermarket tabloid in the western world.

Boynton isn’t sure whether he’ll launch a “Brokeback”-level campaign to capitalize on Pitt’s Jesse James. Given the publicity the film has already generated, perhaps he doesn’t need to.

Author and journalist Chris Cobb is a senior writer at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in Canada’s capital where he specializes in reporting on media and government communication.

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