'Promised Land' putting fracking in focus

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The natural gas industry is getting ready -- very ready -- for its close-up.

With the Gus Van Sant film featuring fracking, "Promised Land," scheduled to hit select theaters at the end of this month, energy firms worried about a misleading Hollywood treatment are adjusting the focus with websites and campaigns against what they see as the movie's motives and message.

So far, they've dissected talk show appearances by the film's stars, questioned the studio's finances and published an incomplete version of the script.

In some cases, the energy firms are getting behind the camera themselves, responding with their own counter-films. The campaign is sure to reach Pennsylvania, where many of the gas firms operating in the Marcellus Shale are quite familiar with the drilling debate.

Industries have feared the multiplex before.

Law firms set up counter-sites to rebut toxic chemical claims in "A Civil Action" (1999), and political analysts still debate the long-term nuclear energy skittishness left after 1979's "The China Syndrome."

One of the studios behind "Promised Land" has a history of tying social movements with publicity campaigns, though any studio-led effort is already weeks behind an industry that's been in image-control overdrive.

The unofficial campaign began in September, when the "Promised Land" trailer hit the Internet and showed Matt Damon's character to be a landman with apparent reservations about his leasing activity. Some of the industry's most sensitive points were on display: Photos of dead cows were shown and at one point a miniature model farm was lit on fire.

The movie, which filmed in Westmoreland, Allegheny and Armstrong counties in May, will open in major cities at the end of this month, and is expected to arrive in Pittsburgh in January.

As the film's stars kicked off a publicity tour this week, the gas industry and its lobbying arms have developed a rapid-response team that dissects every comment made on hydraulic fracturing by Mr. Damon or John Krasinski, who wrote and stars in the film.

Mr. Krasinski appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman" on Monday and discussed hydraulic fracturing with the host. About 12 hours later, the Energy in Depth industry group website led with a blog post called, "Has It Come to This? Fact-Checking Jim from 'The Office' on HF," referencing the actor's role on the NBC sitcom.

The campaign has been led by the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Energy in Depth, two Washington, D.C.-based groups that represent and lobby for thousands of oil and gas producers.

The IPAA compiled supportive, excerpted quotes on drilling from officials, including President Barack Obama and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, on a fact sheet called "The Real Promised Land."

It'll be available on a website set up to rebut or clarify the movie's claims, the organization said. There are no plans to buy advertising at this time, and the organization said the website should be the campaign's only expense.

For movie audiences, "it might be the first time they've heard about shale gas or its benefits," said Jeff Eshelman, IPAA spokesman. The film shows residents weighing the financial stability of signing a lease, with one homeowner mentions national security concerns and energy independence.

The two organizations will share literature with member companies, so the fact sheets and website information will appear on sites for smaller organizations, such as the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association.

"We'll probably fall right in line with IPAA and Energy in Depth," said Dan Weaver, director of public outreach at the Pennsylvania association. The organizations have shared fact sheets on water quality and problems they had with Josh Fox's "Gasland" film on drilling in the past.

On Thursday, Energy in Depth Tweeted a link to a summary of "Local Hero," a 1983 comedy staring Burt Lancaster about an oil company that wants to buy up a Scottish village so it can build a refinery.

"Heard about 'Promised Land?' How unoriginal: 1983 movie had similar story line," the company account posted.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition said it wasn't planning any specific outreach related to "Promised Land."

"This film is purely a work of fiction and is not reflective of the work our industry undertakes, all done within an aggressive and effective regulatory framework," said coalition spokesman Steve Forde, in a prepared statement.

"Promised Land" was produced by Comcast Corp.'s Focus Features, in collaboration with Participant Media LLC.

Participant has a history of coordinating "social action" campaigns for its films and documentaries. For "Lincoln," the company worked with high schools to develop lesson plans that touch on presidential leadership lessons.

For "Food, Inc.," a documentary critical of the agricultural business, Participant included links to websites that deter customers from factory farms and a "Meatless Monday gallery" of vegetarian recipes.

The company has links to articles critical of drilling on its website, but has not released details on what kind of social action campaign will be associated with "Promised Land."

Focus Features has said it did not produce the movie with an agenda in mind, and that it wants viewers to make up their own mind when it premieres.

When writing the script, Mr. Damon and Mr. Krasinski considered focusing on coal mining, oil drilling and even salmon harvesting in Alaska before settling on fracking.

Mr. Krasinski told the Post-Gazette in June that "Promised Land" is "certainly not an anti-fracking movie," and that the original script used wind power as a backdrop.

"The idea of fracking or natural gas was just a very apropos news story that was beginning to grow a year and a half ago," he said. "I just chose that as the background and, of course, that has grown into something quite wild in and of itself."

The feature is the latest in a string of pro- and anti-drilling films that have appeared over the past several years .

Several industry groups produced "Truthland," a response to "Gasland," and Houston-based Consumer Energy Alliance is planning a film festival in 2013 to show the Rational Middle Energy Series, a collection of short films financed by the Royal Dutch Shell oil company. The film festival will target smaller venues in states including Pennsylvania, said Mike Mikus, Pennsylvania director of the Consumer Energy Alliance.

The greatest financial undercutting to "Promised Land" ticket sales, though, may come from a leaked script that gives away the movie's ending.

Phelim McAleer, a California filmmaker who's taken aim at gas drilling opponents in the past, circulated the script on the Internet, although the actual movie has an added closing scene and some rewritten dialogue.

That might not matter to the industry executives who haven't decided whether they'll head to the box office when "Promised Land" premieres.

"I've got other movies farther up on my list," said Mr. Mikus.

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Barbara Vancheri contributed to this report. Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455. First Published December 7, 2012 5:00 AM


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