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Producer Joss Whedon


Attention nerds: this online marketing campaign is tailor-made to delight you.

The savvy realization that the most devout listeners of hip public radio show This American Life are many of the same sorts of people who fuelled a rabid fan base for cult TV darlings Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, is behind a tiny marketing blitz for a new film.

After years of public frustration with the film industry, Buffy creator Joss Whedon has lately turned studio darling after co-writing and directing Marvel's The Avengers, which has raked in $1.46-billion worldwide so far. Ostensibly, he has little to fear from comedian Mike Birbiglia's autobiographical indie film Sleepwalk with Me (made in collaboration with the producers of the This American Life TV show and co-written by its host Ira Glass).

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But Mr. Whedon took to YouTube this week to tell the makers of the film: " Drop dead."

Mr. Whedon expresses fake concern about a campaign of fan support launched by the This American Life team, which has succeeded in increasing the film's miniscule distribution from roughly 30 theatres to 125.

"I'm here to put a stop to this," he said in the video, pointing out that (more than three months after its release) The Avengers is in fewer than 500 theatres.

"They are creeping up on us, and that makes me nervous and offends me to my very core ... We shouldn't be watching these little tiny films that people really care about and work for years on. We should be nurturing corporate spectacle like good Americans."

He urges fans to call their theatres to book the film so that they can boycott it.

On Thursday, Mr. Birbiglia and Mr. Glass responded with a video declaring that in revenge, they want to surpass the Avengers' roughly $1.5-billion box office by one dollar – through dubious mathematics that count on every single resident of each city where the film is shown agreeing to see it multiple times.

"It's on," the bespectacled Mr. Glass said in an entirely non-threatening manner.

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The fake enmity is all in service of the campaign for film distribution. Sleepwalk is backed by IFC Films, and won an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. The film came out of a story Mr. Birbiglia told about his struggles with sleepwalking at recurring live storytelling event The Moth. It spawned a one-man show and then a book before being made for the big screen.

Mr. Glass has asked fans on the radio show and its website to call their local independent theatres asking for the movie to be screened there. The bid for extra publicity aims at social media response among fans of both camps.

While Sleepwalk is turning to grassroots marketing for ticket sales, many independent filmmakers are also capitalizing on the growing popularity of crowd-sourced financial support for small projects, in order to get their films made in the first place.

Crowd-funding websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo – which invite people to give small amounts of money on the Web toward projects they believe in, like a continuous digital version of a public radio pledge drive – have become a source for many independent filmmakers in search of backing. 17 Kickstarter-funded films were at Sundance this year, and 31 went to the South By Southwest film festival.

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