‘Dope’: Why Open Road is Starting Early to Promote the Nerds-in-the-Hood Sundance Hit

Dope” defies characterization. The Rick Famuyiwa-directed movie is funny and sexy, cool and nerdy, a throwback to ’90s hip-hop yet a movie defiantly of its own time. It may be the first movie set in South Central Los Angeles that’s equally concerned with drug deals and the Harvard admissions process. Think of it as nerds in the ‘hood.

It’s precisely that kind of genre-bending that made “Dope” stand out when it debuted at Sundance last winter, sparking a fierce bidding war. The victor in those furious days of Park City dealmaking, Open Road, now faces the daunting task of evoking the spirit and swagger of “Dope” in posters and trailers, all while releasing the film in the heart of summer blockbuster season on June 19, a time of year more hospitable to sequels than edgy indies.

“It’s been a challenge to convey the uniqueness of it,” said Jason Cassidy, Open Road’s chief marketing officer. “It’s different from all the summer movies, and that’s what we love about it. It’s a laugh-out-loud R-rated comedy, and at the same time, it’s a coming-of-age story, and sometimes those things don’t mix into a 30-second spot.”

Getting people to show up may require changing the playbook. Instead of releasing “Dope” in a traditional indie platform release, Open Road will premiere “Dope” on more than 2,000 screens the same weekend that Pixar’s “Inside Out” opens. Like “Inside Out,” “Dope” is also screening in Cannes, playing in the Directors Fortnight on Friday.

“We think it plays well and is relatable,” said Cassidy. “We think it can cross over from the arthouse audience and the Sundance crowd and broadly speaking play like a ‘Superbad.'”

Since “Dope” doesn’t have big names in its cast, Open Road is trying to prime the pump in advance of its release by screening it extensively on college campuses. The process began a month ago, and now “Dope” has been shown at more than 20 schools such as Harvard, Morehouse, Yale, NYU and Brown. The film is the highest-testing release in Open Road’s history, Cassidy has said, and that’s translating into passionate reactions online and on Facebook and Twitter.

While “Dope” may lack recognizable movie stars in its cast, its profile will get a boost from a soundtrack that includes new songs from executive producer Pharrell Williams. Plus, the music superstar has played a key role in its marketing, talking up the film on social media and releasing a poster for the movie on his Instagram account.

The presence of Williams and producer Sean Combs have been critical selling points, and the “Dope” team seems to be relying on a series of high-profile ambassadors for the film. James Franco and Russell Simmons are among the fans of “Dope” who have publicly praised the picture and urged others to go see it.

Rather than downplay “Dope’s” unconventional elements, marketing materials for the picture appear to be embracing what makes it different. The first trailer attempted to give a sense of Famuyiwa’s kinetic editing, pop culture references and offbeat sense of humor. The poster depicts the three bookish protagonists on their bikes under the tagline, “It’s hard out here for a geek,” a play on the Three 6 Mafia song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from “Hustle & Flow.”

“The trailer and the graphics packages are meant to connect it to the world of social media,” said Cassidy. “It looks like it could have come straight out of someone’s Instagram feed.”

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