By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - Education reform film "Won't Back Down" opened Friday to terrible reviews - and high hopes from activists who expect the movie to inspire parents everywhere to demand big changes in public schools.
The drama stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a spirited mother who teams up with a passionate teacher to seize control of their failing neighborhood school, over the opposition of a self-serving teachers union.
Reviewers called it trite and dull, but education reformers on both the left and right have hailed the film as a potential game-changer that could aid their fight to weaken teachers' unions and inject more competition into public education.
Private foundations, nonprofit advocacy groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have pumped more than $2 million into advocacy efforts tied to "Won't Back Down," including 30-second ads, promotional bookmarks, websites, private screenings and a six-month, cross-country discussion tour that will keep the film in circulation long after it leaves theaters.
Their goal: To attract new foot soldiers who will help them fight for legislation that allows parents to seize control of local schools, as dramatized in the film; eliminates tenure protections for veteran teachers; and opens the door for more competition to neighborhood schools in the form of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run.
"This movie has the potential to be one of the most transformative vehicles in the history of education reform," said Ben Austin, a longtime Democratic activist.
Austin now runs Parent Revolution, which promotes "parent trigger" laws allowing parents unhappy with struggling schools to take control, fire teachers and bring in private management.
His organization is holding 35 private screenings of "Won't Back Down" in states from Georgia to Utah to New York over the next month to rally more parents to the cause. "This movie is telling a story that's relevant to hundreds of thousands of parents across America," Austin said.
Union leaders, for their part, have slammed the movie as a propaganda film that bears little resemblance to reality.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has called it "egregiously misleading" and complained that several scenes seemed designed for "the sole purpose of undermining people's confidence in public education, public school teachers and teacher unions."
Parent groups that support teachers' unions have organized protests outside some screenings. And they've been gleefully posting negative reviews of "Won't Back Down" on Facebook and Twitter.
PUSH FOR CHARTER SCHOOLS
So far, the reform coalition has ignored the bad reviews and pushed ahead with their marketing efforts.
The drive to capitalize on the movie grows out of lingering disappointment within the education reform community over the last major film to carry their message, the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman.'"
Produced by Walden Media, which is also behind "Won't Back Down," the documentary chronicled dysfunction in urban schools and the desperation of parents trying to find alternatives for their children.
"Waiting for 'Superman'" was well-received and widely viewed, thanks to backing by the Gates Foundation. But activists hoping for a big boost from the film were disappointed.
"We didn't feel we captured anyone," said Matt David, a consultant to Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools and a major figure in the reform movement. Many viewers walked out angry at the public school system, he said, but had no way to channel that emotion into action.
This time, Rhee is moving quickly to provide a channel. Her advocacy group, StudentsFirst, has bought 30-second ads to run before showings of "Won't Back Down" in 1,500 theaters and sponsored marketing efforts to drive viewers to her website.
That website has been revamped to feature an "action center" where people moved by the film can sign up to join StudentsFirst, view short videos about its agenda (including one from comedian and newly appointed board member Bill Cosby), and share their own experiences with public schools.
The Center for Education Reform's website urges viewers to launch their own charter schools to compete with public schools. "You don't need a PhD or a teaching degree to start a school," the center's website advises. "Remember, you can do it now."
The most enduring campaign linked to the film may be the six-month "Breaking the Monopoly of Mediocrity" tour arranged by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Drawing on a $1.2 million grant from the Daniels Fund, the group plans to stage private screenings and discussion forums for business and civic leaders in cities from Memphis, Tennessee, to El Paso, Texas, to Trenton, New Jersey.
The American Federation of Teachers is countering with its own series of town hall meetings and workshops across the country designed to present teachers - and unions - as natural allies of parents seeking to better their schools.
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon; editing by Todd Eastham)