By Mark Drajem
Before many Pennsylvania movie-goers settle in for Matt Damon's film about the fight over natural gas drilling, they will see a message from the energy industry offering "straightforward facts" about hydraulic fracturing.
The unorthodox, on-screen pre-buttal of "Promised Land," which opens nationwide Friday, is part of an industry campaign aimed at heading off criticism about the process, also called fracking. Instead of direct attacks, which the industry used against the documentary "Gasland," they are trying to paint Damon's movie as derivative, condescending and cliched.
Taken together the industry campaigns — at Pennsylvania movie theaters, on a website and using social media — underscore efforts to combat negative perceptions about the practice, deal with persistent questions about the risks of pollution and head- off calls for more oversight and regulation.
"The oil and gas industry is at the bottom in terms of public respect, and this movie is not going to help it," John Hanger, the former top environmental regulator in Pennsylvania, said in an interview. "It describes the oil and gas industry as fundamentally dishonest, and willing to do anything to win."
The film directed by Gus Van Sant pits Damon as an out-of- town gas-company land man facing off against an environmentalist played by John Krasinski in the fictional town of McKinley. The industry uses cash bribes, hard sells and Machiavellian maneuvers to get its way.
"Fracking is a great premise for real drama," James Schamus, the head of Focus Features, a unit of Comcast's NBCUniversal Media that produced and distributed the film, said in an interview. "It represents Americans deeply conflicted about how to deal with these issues."
The energy industry's public relations pushback against the film echoes the fictional stealth "propaganda campaign" depicted in the film, he said.
The on-screen ad being showed in 75 percent of Pennsylvania theaters lasts 16 seconds and refers the audience to an industry-sponsored website, www.learnaboutshale.org, for "a community conversation on natural gas." It's sponsored by the Pittsburgh-based Marcellus Shale Coalition industry group.
Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the Washington-based drillers' group Energy in Depth, said it's being deliberately restrained, as it doesn't want to pick a fight with Damon or offer a detailed critique of a work of fiction. That contrasts with its attempts to rebut Josh Fox's Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary "Gasland," which showed a homeowner living near a fracking site setting fire to water from his kitchen tap.
" 'Gasland' lends itself to rebuttal and correction in a way that 'Promised Land' does not," Tucker said in an interview. At an industry conference in November, Tucker said the "Promised Land" script showed Damon defending fracking for two-thirds of the movie, "and he does a pretty good job of it."
Tucker's group created a site featuring local landowners, RealPromisedLand.org. "On this site, you won't find any actors, scripts or manufactured storylines," Energy in Depth said on the site, which doesn't specifically mention the movie or Damon. "What you will find here is real people, with real stories, about how development has impacted them and their families.
''These aren't stories you're likely to see out at the movies," it said. "But we think they're pretty remarkable, just the same."
Proponents of the drilling practice in Armstrong County, Penn. — where the movie was filmed — expressed disappointment with the movie's tone on Facebook.
Mike Knapp, vice president for land at MDS Energy Development, which is based in the western Pennsylvania county, said the movie sets up a false dichotomy.
Knapp, who helped organize the Facebook group, said he has been a land man, just like Damon's character, but he is from the area and not an out-of-state interloper. "One of the things that really aggravates me is that they seem to have a very condescending view" by portraying some local farmers as greedy or unsophisticated, he said. "It's a movie, and everybody is going to get crazy about it."
Fracking and horizontal drilling has opened up deep rock formations in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado to drilling and production, boosting local economies and spurring manufacturing growth because of lower gas prices.
Critics of fracking, in which millions of gallons of water are mixed with sand and chemicals to blast apart underground rock formations and free trapped gas, praised the film as an important representation of the conflicts now tearing through many rural communities.
"It's a very good way to introduce fracking to all of America, because it will not be too much, too soon," Rebecca Roter, who lives in northeastern Pennsylvania and is fighting local drilling and pipeline construction, said in an interview. "It captures the costs of this industry."
The film shows the gas industry manipulating those who hold power in the fictional town, which is frequently the case in real life, said Chris Csikszentmihalyi, who started the Landman Report Card website. The site lets residents rate and comment on the person who negotiated their lease for the rights to underground natural gas.
"Industry has the ability to do whatever it wants in these rural communities," he said.
Krasinski and Damon wrote "Promised Land" together. In fact sheets provided by the studio they have said they weren't writing an anti-fracking film; in fact, it began as a story about wind power.
Damon plays Steve Butler, the company representative who sets up leases with landowners to drill on or near their property. In the film's opening scenes, Butler is portrayed as a man who signs bargain-basement leases and dismisses reverence for rural America as "delusional" and "self-mythologizing."
He and his partner are persuading residents of McKinley to sign leases with their company. Then Krasinski's character, Dustin Noble, turns up with photos of dead cattle, which he said were poisoned from gas drilling at his family farm in Nebraska.
With a town-wide vote on gas drilling looming, the two men tussle for the support, and affections, of local residents.
The movie was shot in and around the town of Worthington, about 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The state of Pennsylvania, which has been pushing gas drilling, gave the production company $4 million in tax credits, an investment deemed worthwhile because of the jobs and spending the movie brought to the area, said Steve Katz, a state spokesman. Hundreds of local residents auditioned to play one of 500 extras, according to the film's producers.
Hanger, who calls himself a realist about costs and benefits of gas drilling, said the movie undercuts the advantages of the process at every turn. It shows Butler to be a shifty character from the start, and the gas company willing to bribe and cheat to prevail, he said.
"This movie could have challenged everybody, and forced everyone to face questions," Hanger said. Fracking "offers dramatic, powerful material and requires better."
Supporters of the practice will have their own film in the coming days, as Phelim McAleer is set to release on Monday his "Fracknation," which questions the critics of the practice. McAleer paid for space on a billboard in upstate New York, which says, "Matt Damon: the water has been on fire since 1669."
"The movie is OK, but it's the politics and dishonesty I can't stand," McAleer said in an interview.