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Canvassers urge “‘Superman’” audience to join political fight

“Waiting for ‘Superman'” director Davis Guggenheim has repeatedly denounced criticisms that his film stakes a ground that is pro-charter school and critical of the teachers union. But a lobbying group with exactly that agenda is using the documentary to spread its message to the general public.

The campaign, called “Done Waiting,” represents one winner in the ongoing debate inside the education world about how to transform the attention the film into a coherent “call to action” for agitated movie-goers.

The answer put forward by Education Reform Now, the group leading the “Done Waiting” campaign, is to use the film as a springboard for making specific political changes.

The group’s favored changes include expanding charter schools and changing the way teachers are evaluated and granted tenure. Paid canvassers waiting outside movie theaters across the country hand movie-goers literature, direct them to a campaign-style web site, DoneWaiting.org, and encourage them to add their e-mail addresses to the group’s mailing list.

(Education Reform Now was also the group behind the massive public relations campaign that preceded New York’s charter cap lift in May, and the advocacy component to the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform.)

The campaign has not been endorsed by the film’s movie studio and production company, Paramount Pictures and Participant Media, which is running its own, less explicitly political outreach campaign around the film.

While Done Waiting canvassers handed out stylized, well-designed fliers when I saw the film on Sunday, Paramount and Participant Media had printed glossy fliers and had them stacked on a table inside the movie theater. The fliers and Paramount’s web site, WaitingForSuperman.com, suggest that people take action by volunteering at a school, mentoring a student, or making a donation to a teacher via the website DonorsChoose.

But to a casual observer, the Done Waiting canvassers, who are being paid a starting wage of 10 dollars per hour, could easily be mistaken as affiliated with the film. When I saw the film, canvassers greeted those exiting the theater onto Houston Street with palm cards and requests for their contact information, which many people I saw seemed happy to give them. The canvasser I spoke to was vague about who was behind the campaign, referring me to its website.

A spokesman for Participant, Jeff Sakson, said that while the production company was aware of Done Waiting’s activity, such political organizing is not part of Participant’s mission.

“Waiting for ‘Superman,'” which had the fourth-best opening of any specialty film last weekend, has already sparked a national conversation about education reform. Oprah aired two shows based around the film, President Barack Obama called it “powerful,” and a week of education programming on NBC has frequently mentioned the film.

The Done Waiting canvassers have often not been the only ones waiting outside the theater, hoping to grab the attention of  the “Waiting for ‘Superman'” audience. Two groups of teachers and parents, upset at the film’s portrayal of teachers unions as impediments to change, staged loud protests at screenings of the film over the weekend.