blaxploitation (noun) – the exploitation of black people (especially with regard to stereotyped roles in movies)

birdersploitation (noun) – the exploitation of birders (especially with regard to promotion of movies)*

The entire birding world has been abuzz with talk about the upcoming movie The Big Year which will apparently, to judge from the breathless pre-release buzz, bring birding to the mainstream and make birding the best thing since sliced bread. Audubon Magazine had pages of coverage, the bird blogosphere – including 10,000 Birds – has posted YouTube clips of previews and run interviews with everyone from the birders who the characters in the movie are based on to the director of the film. It is a perfect media storm in the birding world. There is only one thing wrong. There has not been a dime of money spent by Fox, the studio releasing The Big Year, on promoting the movie in the birding world. That’s right. No ads in birding magazines or birding blogs. No presence at birding festivals. No donations for conservation or birding education. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. (Please do correct me if I am wrong but I can’t find a single example.)

What’s worse than Fox’s stinginess with the birding world? The fact that birders have done the work for free by promoting the movie in our magazines and online at every opportunity. Even here at 10,000 Birds we were eager to ship out some water bottles and bumper stickers with our logo to the makers of the movie, at our expense, in the hope that they would show up in the film. Even worse than that is the absurd fact that the National Audubon Society, a non-profit organization, is not only not getting paid for advertising in their magazine while pimping The Big Year for free but, according to Variety, is actually funding a marketing campaign for The Big Year due to kick off tomorrow. Yes, you read that right. And it’s not chump-change that Audubon is putting into it, either:

In fact, Audubon has sunk six figures into the Fox marketing effort — which includes media kits, private screenings in 20 cities and a massive social media effort that launches Oct. 10 — in a push to attract the 48 million birders in America, as estimated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This movie helps show the new face of birding,” says Yarnold of the pic that revolves around three men who compete to spot the greatest number of birds in the span of a year. “Any (bird enthusiast) could go to this movie and think that they’re watching themselves. How cool is that?”

For its part, Fox said through a spokesperson that it finds Audubon’s efforts “very gratifying,” though the studio declined to elaborate on a campaign still in progress. [emphasis mine]

Of course Fox finds Audubon’s efforts very gratifying! How could they not? Audubon is doing the studio’s work for it and getting what in return? Mention of Audubon in the film? Seriously? And then what? Moviegoers will rush home and send in membership dues to Audubon that will recoup the six-figures that Audubon spent? Well, according to the press release Audubon put out, which does not mention that Audubon is spending six figures to promote the movie, yes!

The film release will heighten interest in Audubon and its activities, providing a great opportunity for people to find out more about this popular organization, which serves to connect people with birds and nature. Audubon members come from every walk of life and demographic, and with nearly 500 Audubon chapters nationwide, it is easy to get into birding.

And what, exactly, does Audubon get in return for its six figure investment? In a PDF found on their website called “General Information and Press Packet” it looks like this is the sum total of what they get:

Audubon has a presence in the film:

  • In the beginning of the film, actor John Cleese explains how the concept of a Big Year got started. He says people used to compete to see how many birds they could shoot over the holidays, but Frank Chapman and the Audubon Society decided to count birds instead of shoot them. Chapman made is appeal in Bird Lore magazine, which evolved into Audubon magazine..
  • In at least two instances, Owen Wilson (who portrays the defending champion birder) is pictured on the cover of Audubon Magazine.
  • Audubon logos and signs appear at several points in the movie.
  • In general, birding is treated with remarkable respect throughout the movie. There are many scenes where the wonder of birds and the joy of seeing them are featured.
  • The trailer for the movie highlights the “buddy comedy” aspects of the film, which isn’t really a bad thing. We understand that the studio has to sell tickets, and that a buddy comedy has a better chance of getting people in the theater than a birding movie. Moreover, this focus on the personal relationships isn’t a bad thing at all. We all know that one of the great joys of birding is the human relationships that form around it.

That sure doesn’t seem like six figures worth to me, especially considering that it seems likely that most of that would have happened anyway by Audubon giving permission to the filmmakers to use their logo.

The subtitle of the Variety article is “Studio partners up with National Audubon Society.” You know what you call a partnership that has one side getting everything and the other side getting nothing or virtually nothing? Exploitation. And the entire birding world, doing the bidding of an already rich movie studio while getting nothing in return and no control over how we are portrayed in the film, is being exploited as well.

And don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to blame the victim here. I am sure that the National Audubon Society and David Yarnold are doing what they see as the right thing to bring the joys of birds and birding to the wider world. Every effort counts and the more birders that there are in the world and the more people that are interested in conservation the better things will be for the birds. I hope that their efforts to recruit birders through The Big Year succeeds! I just don’t think that folks are stepping back and looking at the big picture here, the picture that has a major motion picture studio playing us all for fools while laughing all the way to the bank. The characters in the movie are supposed to be genuine characters, not the bumbling, silly, geeky, stereotypes that birders have had to live with for years. So why are real birders stumbling and bumbling and letting movie makers take advantage of us? We care about birds and they care about cash. They are using our naivete and hope for more birders to fulfill their goal of making more cash.

Will I see The Big Year? I will. I am a birder and I want to see how I am being portrayed in a major motion picture if only so I will understand the jokes that people will be cracking about birders for the next couple of decades. But I will certainly not promote it again nor encourage others to see it until I see Fox start putting money into the birding world. And Audubon had better do some damn good things over the next several years before I have to renew my membership – I don’t want to see my membership money going to promoting a movie that already has an advertising budget.

*I am not, by the way, saying in any way that birders are even close to being as exploited by the film industry as African-Americans were (and are). But the play on words is just too tempting.

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.