As important as they may be, some issues just don’t generate a lot of media interest. They’re too complex to explain, perhaps. Or maybe they’d rub advertisers the wrong way.

Sometimes it’s both, as USPR Sacramento member Heather Atherton found out, trying to get coverage of her client’s law practice representing homeowners in mortgage disputes with banks.

That all changed with the late-2015 release of “The Big Short,” the film featuring Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt. The film details the often-unscrupulous ways in which lenders gave mortgages to people ill-prepared financially for home ownership, eventually leading to the housing collapse of 2007-08.

A box-office hit, the film and its director, Adam McKay, were praised for the entertaining, yet educational, way it addressed an economic issue that affected millions of Americans. The power of its narrative also opened a hole in a wall that Heather hadn’t been able to get through. Suddenly, bad mortgage loans were newsworthy again. But how could she take advantage of this new PR opening?

Screening “The Big Short” draws a crowd

"The Big Short" Movie Poster. Paramount Pictures.

"The Big Short" Movie Poster. Paramount Pictures.

She decided to screen the film for the public, followed by a discussion of the issue with the attorney whom she’d been representing, Steven J. Foondos. She’d invite his clients to the event, as well as the press and public.

To really drive attendance, though, she hoped to have someone connected to the film in attendance. She first contacted representatives of Michael Lewis, who wrote the book that the film was based on.

Sure, he’d be happy to participate – his fee to do so would be six figures. That was, needless to say, a bit beyond her budget.

So she went down the list and inquired about the availability of the real-life person that the Steve Carell character is based upon. His fee? Five figures. Still far too high.

Finding Ryan Gosling’s assistant

Finally, she found an actor who played Ryan Gosling’s assistant in the film named Jeffry Griffin.  He was available for a nominal cost. As luck would have it, Jeffry was profiled in both Variety and Fortune magazines just days before the screening. Luckier still: The Oscar nominations were released the morning of the screening, making the event, even more timely in the eyes of media.

The screening generated a lot of attention, with local media in attendance as Foondos and Kelly Brothers, a financial advisor who hosts a weekly radio program, held a panel discussion after the event. Foondos explained how many of the problems that led to the initial housing crisis weren’t being addressed by the media, such as mortgage modification fraud. Griffin explained how McKay, with the help of financial experts, made sure the cast and crew understood the complicated issues of the housing collapse. Brothers said homeowners should look at their home as a long-term investment, not an ATM.

Movies change the public discussion

One of the biggest surprises to Heather is which news outlets are most eager to talk to Foondos about lending practices now. While some media have been afraid of offending banks who advertise with them, a reporter from American Banker has covered the topic extensively.

Heather’s takeaway: Movies can – and do – change public dialogue and interest in a subject. For example, the movie “Concussion” might be just what’s needed for an organization looking to bring attention to head injuries and their consequences. It just takes a little creativity, enterprise and a receptive theater.

Article by Michael Blumfield, USPR Director of Business-to-Business Marketing Communication