Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Making the Most of Beowulf Mania

Long categorized in popular culture as one of those boring books you're forced to read in college, Beowulf is having a revival at the moment, and may even blossom into full BeoMania by the end of the year. Consider the following:
Though the quality of the above varies, that is a lot of pop culture interest in a book that's supposedly boring.

The Zemeckis film might be what tips us into BeoMania. Not only does it have (in animated form) such big celebrities as Angelina Jolie (naked?), Anthony Hopkins, and John Malkovich, but it will also come with a Hollywood-style marketing campaign, including posable figurines and its own theme park attraction.

So, the question remains: How do we capitalize on BeoMania? How can we use this big marketing campaign to steer people toward informed work on Beowulf and other medieval literature? The clock is ticking; the release date is in exactly one month -- so what do we do?

I've struck up a friendship recently with a journalist over our mutual interest in popular medievalism. I like to call him "my paparazzi," and he likes to call me his "spirit guide." I put this question recently to my paparazzi and, along with the folks from my University Relations office, and I've collected their advice on how to use this film to promote academic work.

First of all, let's deal with who will want to talk to you about Beowulf. For most of us, our best bet is local media -- which is just as well, since your chair, your dean, your provost, your potential students, your alumni, your trustees, etc. all probably watch the local media. While it might be nice to be a talking head on some cable news outlet, most of us won't have a chance to do that. You probably want to focus on local newspapers and local television. Your university has an office that is probably called "University Relations" or "Public Affairs" -- basically the propaganda arm of the school. Contact them to let them know that you are interested in offering yourself as a resource. In some cases, they will just want to be kept in the loop, in others, they'll take an active role in helping you. At the very least, they should be able to provide contact information to the local media resources.

About 2-3 weeks out before the film is released, you'll want to send an e-mail to your contacts. First of all, know who you should be contacting. At most newspapers, there should be an entertainment editor or a culture editor -- that's your best bet. In terms of television, this is the kind of thing that lends itself to the 5-10 minute interview format (on my own local station, it's 6 minutes). Don't be afraid of cable access shows, though you should be aware that cable access is likely to have a smaller audience while making a greater demand on your time. The good part of that "greater demand on your time) bit is that you might get the chance to further develop ideas in ways that just aren't possible in the 6-minute format.

When you compose the e-mail, you have to walk a fine line between pushing for editor to cover a story and telling them how to do their job. Probably the best way to do this is to write a brief e-mail of about a paragraph or two in which you mention the occasion ("major Hollywood motion picture with big-name stars blah blah blah," "I'm really interested in this film and the phenomenon yadda yadda yadda") and your credentials -- just the basic "professor of medieval literature at local university" rather than your CV; they really aren't that interested that you had an article published in the PMLA. Then, offer yourself as a resource if they want to do a story on the subject. It might be a good idea to have a couple of talking points already prepared, and to work one of these into the e-mail so that they already have a hook for the story.

So, what kind of talking points do you need? First of all, remember that your local newspaper covers local events for a reason -- that's their main mission. They won't be able to compete with, say, the New York Times coverage of some economic summit in Switzerland, but then again the NY Times can't compete with the local paper's coverage of the mayoral race or the charity fish fry. Emphasize the local connection -- It is more important to them that you are the most local professor of medieval lit than if you were the most world-famous professor of medieval lit. In this case, your relative obscurity will actually work to your advantage, especially if you're in a college town.

The other talking point should probably be some kind of bridge between the occasion (in this case, a movie) and your expertise. Come up with some pithy things to say comparing the book and the movie. Be sure that it doesn't sound snotty or condescending. One of the hardest things for academics to do, I think, is to talk to popular audiences. It's not a "text," it's a book or poem. Beowulf is not the "protagonist," he's the main character. The monsters aren't "metaphorical eruptions of social anxieties," they're symbols. In other words, you don't have to dumb down your ideas, you just have to translate those ideas into common parlance.

Your e-mail might sound something like this:
Dear Entertainment Editor,
As you may know, the big-budget film Beowulf, starring Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, and Ray Winstone, will be opening in local XYZ Cinema on November 16th. As a professor of medieval literature at Local University, I'm very interested in this film, as well as all the general excitement around Beowulf in the last couple of years. In fact, I'll be hosting a public discussion group on the movie and the book on Whenever Date in Late November, in Well-Known Venue available at the University, where we'll be comparing the book and the movie. If you are interested, I would like to offer myself as a resource for any stories you might be doing on this movie and the local excitement surrounding it.
Prof. Enthusiastic Medievalist

About three days to a week after your initial e-mail, make a follow-up telephone call asking if they received the e-mail and if you can be of service to them as a resource. Yes, of course they got the e-mail -- this is just a polite way to remind them and see if they are really interested.

You might also consider having some sort of event lined up. For example, in my own school I suspect many professors will offer extra credit to their World Lit I students if they go see the film and write some kind of review. Why not host a discussion section the week after the film opens, and make it open to the public? You might even get the local theater to host a public forum after a matinee on opening weekend. Even if not many people come to your discussion (don't call it a "lecture" even if it is; that sounds boring), you'll at least have an event to talk about in any interviews you do, and you'll give all the local people a chance to connect with academic medievalism.

What am I going to do? Right now, I'm not sure, because our local theater isn't planning on running the movie. I'm going to try to convince them that running Beowulf in a university town in late November (right when the need for extra credit is the highest) is a good commercial decision, but getting them to change their minds might be an uphill battle. Most likely, people are going to have to run up to Montgomery to see the movie, which means I'll probably do a few local television programs, maybe a radio show or two, reach out to the local paper, and then run some sort of PowerPointish discussion on campus. If I can, I'll try to get the SCA to coordinate some kind of weapons demonstration to try to draw even more folks. In any case, I'll make announcements of what I'm doing here on the Wordhoard.


  1. Hey, this all sounds like a great idea! I might even get our modern poetry prof involved to talk about the Heaney translation as its work (she *loves* it). Of course, she's also the chair, so she might not have time.

    But here's my question: as a late medievalist and not at all an Anglo-Saxonist, except insofar as it's my secondary field (actually, maybe tertiary -- I think I know the 16th century better), I'm worried, if interviewed, of making an ass of myself in print by saying something Anglo-Saxonists would think is stupid. *Should* I worry or should I assume no Anglo-Saxonist will ever see it given that the only other English medieval lit person in the local paper's region is also a late medievalist?

  2. My experience working with the media is this: They will get something wrong anyway ... they'll misunderstand you, or not understand the context of a statement, or will even (sometimes) just make stuff up to fit their storyline.

    Even if you were the world's most number-one super-duper Beowulf expert of all time, very likely something that appears stupid will appear in print. So, just roll with it. It's pretty unlikely that a reporter who is dedicating all of an hour or two to the story will completely stump you ... and if you don't know the answer, just say, "I don't know."

    You might not be the world's top expert, but you ARE the expert who is available to talk about it. That's good enough.

  3. Another prime talking point: the power of a good story. This tale continues to have life because it's such a great yarn. Monsters, battles, intrigue!

    It's a pity most people never read it -- or had it taught to them by someone who didn't know anything about it, who misses the fun of the story, the excitement.

  4. And don't forget to mention the comic, which gives a preview with spoilers for those who can't wait until Nov 16...

  5. Kate,

    That link doesn't appear to be a place where one can BUY the comic. Any idea where it is available?

  6. At your local comic shop -- the first issue came out October 3.