Before many Pennsylvania moviegoers settle in for Matt Damons film about the fight over natural gas drilling, they will see a message from the energy industry offering straightforward facts about hydraulic fracturing.
The unorthodox, on-screen pre-buttal of Promised Land, which opened nationwide Friday, is part of an industry campaign aimed at heading off criticism about the process, also called fracking. Instead of direct attacks, which the industry used against the documentary Gasland, they are trying to paint Damons movie as derivative, condescending and clichéd.
Taken together the industry campaigns – at Pennsylvania movie theaters, on a website and using social media – underscore efforts to combat negative perceptions about the practice, deal with persistent questions about the risks of pollution and head-off calls for more oversight and regulation.
The oil and gas industry is at the bottom in terms of public respect, and this movie is not going to help it, John Hanger, the former top environmental regulator in Pennsylvania, said in an interview. It describes the oil and gas industry as fundamentally dishonest, and willing to do anything to win.
The film directed by Gus Van Sant pits Damon as an out-of-town gas-company land man facing off against an environmentalist played by John Krasinski in the fictional town of McKinley. The industry uses cash bribes, hard sells and Machiavellian maneuvers to get its way.
Fracking is a great premise for real drama, James Schamus, the head of Focus Features, a unit of Comcasts NBCUniversal Media that produced and distributed the film, said in an interview. It represents Americans deeply conflicted about how to deal with these issues.
The energy industrys public relations pushback against the film echoes the fictional stealth propaganda campaign depicted in the film, he said.
The on-screen ad being showed in 75 percent of Pennsylvania theaters lasts 16 seconds and refers the audience to an industry-sponsored website, www.learnaboutshale.org, for a community conversation on natural gas. Its sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group in Pittsburgh.
Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the Washington-based drillers group Energy in Depth, said its being deliberately restrained, as it doesnt want to pick a fight with Damon or offer a detailed critique of a work of fiction. That contrasts with its attempts to rebut Josh Foxs Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Gasland, which showed a homeowner living near a fracking site setting fire to water from his kitchen tap.
Gasland lends itself to rebuttal and correction in a way that Promised Land does not, Tucker said in an interview. At an industry conference in November, Tucker said the Promised Land script showed Damon defending fracking for two-thirds of the movie, and he does a pretty good job of it.