Inside Move: Artisan takes ‘Jonah’ to the B.O. masses

Promo to tap into Christian circles who're fans of vid-based pic

As big ideas go, here’s a wild one: Create a Biblically themed animated pic around the vegetable stars of a video series that’s never been on TV.

Unlikely as the project sounds, Artisan Entertainment thinks it will be swimming in green with its first animated release, “Jonah.”

To attract a wide audience, Artisan put together its biggest promotional push ever. To build word of mouth inexpensively, it’s relying on a novel “inside-out” release strategy that initially ignores the Northeast.

Pic is based on Veggie Tales, a video series by Illinois-based Big Idea Prods. that has sold 28 million units in the past nine years. Even without broadcast exposure, the vids have done so well that Big Idea now sells Veggie Tales books, music and other spinoffs.

Big Idea prexy-chief operating officer Terry Botwick says Veggie Tales are set in “Biblical worlds,” soft-pedaling Old Testament morality tales that appeal to both Jewish and Christian viewers without turning off less devout general auds.

The vids’ popularity in Christian circles has turned that channel into a major promotional avenue, though not the only marketing target, says Artisan Entertainment CEO Amir Malin. This summer, the company printed 20,000 study guides for youth pastors, backed a Christian rock band’s tour and screened the film at the Christian Booksellers Assn. convention.

And Big Idea’s close relationships in the $4 billion Christian merchandising biz have paid off: The prexy of the biggest Christian book chain emailed its customers to urge them to see the movie its first weekend.

The platformed release strategy targets the South and Midwest, where the videos have always sold well, and ignores the Northeast, where they haven’t. After opening on 900 screens Oct. 4, the pic will expand to 1,500 later in the month, dodging major-studio holiday releases.

It’s a huge effort for two relatively small companies, but execs say the film’s guppy-sized cost (less than $14 million) and whale-sized target aud make it a feasible venture.

Throw in the pic’s reasonable expectations for a Methuselah-like video life, Botwick says, and the companies couldn’t wait to swallow “Jonah.”

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