Energy firms take aim at fracking film, 'Promised Land'

Rosemarie DeWitt and Matt Damon star in 'Promised Land.'

Photo by Focus Features

Rosemarie DeWitt and Matt Damon star in "Promised Land."

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

With the fracking film "Promised Land" scheduled to hit theaters in late December, energy firms have launched campaigns and websites to counter what they see as the movie's misleading 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 films.

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

John Krasinski, from left, Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon on the set of 'Promised Land.'

Photo by Focus Features

John Krasinski, from left, Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon on the set of "Promised Land."

The unofficial campaign began in September, when the "Promised Land" trailer hit the Internet and showed Matt Damon's character to have 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.

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

Krasinski appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman" 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.

Also campaigning against the film is the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents and lobbies for thousands of oil and gas producers.

The association 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 will be available on a website set up to rebut or clarify the movie's claims, the organization said.

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

"Promised Land" was produced by 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. For "Food Inc.," a documentary critical of agribusiness, Participant included links to websites that deter customers from factory farms.

The company website has links to articles critical of drilling, but it has not released details on any kind of social action campaign for "Promised Land."

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

Krasinski said 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," Krasinski 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 surfacing over the past several years .

Several industry groups produced "Truthland," a response to "Gasland," and the Consumer Energy Alliance is planning a 2013 film festival to show the Rational Middle Energy Series, a collection of short films financed by the Royal Dutch Shell oil company.

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 has 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.

(Reach Erich Schwartzel at eschwartzel@post-gazette.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com)

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