Grassroots campaign leads to the winning word

Can you spell S-L-E-E-P-E-R?

“Spellbound,” the Oscar-nominated nonfiction nail-biter about National Spelling Bee contestants, is one of this year’s indie success stories.

Since opening in theaters on May 2 via ThinkFilm, pic has grossed some $5 million and is among a handful of docs (“Capturing the Friedmans,” “Winged Migration”) breaking out at the box office this year.

“In my seven years in distribution I can’t remember having this much gross with this little P&A,” says Mark Urman, head of distribution at ThinkFilm, which acquired “Spellbound” at last year’s Toronto Film Festival.

A look at the strategy:

  • On the basis of strong audience reactions, ThinkFilm encourages more film festival slots around the country, from Palm Springs to Portland, Wilmington to Milwaukee. And an unprecedented number of word-of-mouth screenings are held prior to the release.

    “For every person who saw ‘Spellbound’ for free,” says Urman, “it was as good as seven inches of ads in the New York Times.” (Even Disney’s Michael Eisner — whose son went to USC film school with helmer Jeff Blitz — hosted a preview.)

  • A grassroots campaign includes emails to educator and parents lists and tie-ins with the PTA, the international high-IQ society Mensa, Reading Is Fundamental, local libraries, and Apple (the film was edited on Apple’s Final Cut Pro).

  • New York’s Film Forum provides an exclusive kick-off run. With the theaters’ built-in Gotham aud and the movie’s reviews, three weeks of sold out screenings commence before the film’s expansion. And not only does New York Times critic A.O. Scott write a glowing review, but it turns out he was a former competitor. (He lost on “idioglossia.”) An Arts & Leisure article follows.

  • “Spellbound’s” first rollout is timed to coincide with the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. Competish, along with the film, garners widespread media attention, with feature stories in national publications and segments on “Oprah,” “The Today Show” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”

  • As word-of-mouth continues to spread on the G-rated film’s family friendly content, ThinkFilm begins to book multiple theaters — both arthouse and commercial — in the same market. “Kids bring their parents who bring their parents,” says “Spellbound” producer Sean Welsh.

Now that the film’s initial release is winding down, ThinkFilm is pondering a back-to-school re-launch and HBO is readying for a December broadcast.

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