After a rough cut of “The Brown Bunny” was booed at the Cannes Film Festival last year, no one thought the pic would ever get a theatrical release. Director Vincent Gallo was branded a self-indulgent hack, and mudslinging ensued among the filmmaker and the film’s foreign buyers, as well as a highly publicized back-and-forth with Roger Ebert.

Several months later, a shorter cut of the film drew improved responses and toured festivals. Earlier this year, newly cashed-up distrib Wellspring acquired the U.S. rights to “Brown Bunny” and devised a two-part strategy for success: do damage control on Gallo’s rep, embrace the controversy surrounding the film and its supersexual content.

A look how they built the buzz:

In early August, Vincent Gallo drives cross-country with a print, doing a seven-stop sneak-preview tour of Buffalo, N.Y.; Chicago; Detroit; Minneapolis; Denver; San Francisco; and Los Angeles. In four cities, postscreening Q&As with Gallo last two-plus hours. “We want people to know that Vincent isn’t a bad guy,” says Wellspring distribution chief Ryan Werner, “and we want them to know how passionate he is about this film.”

After Ebert called “Brown Bunny” the worst film in the history of the Cannes festival, Gallo called Ebert a “fat pig.” Ebert responded: “It is true that I am fat. But one day I shall be thin, and he will still be the director of ‘The Brown Bunny.’ ” The day before the film opens, Gallo and Ebert will be guests on Howard Stern’s radio show.

A $30,000 billboard is purchased on L.A.’s Sunset Strip for the month of August. It focuses on the film’s fellatio scene — naughty bits obscured by an out-of-focus haze — alongside the words “Adults Only” and a large “X.” The pic is going out unrated. However, says Ryan, “the X is meant to remind viewers of films like ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ great ’70s films that had a similar liberal attitude towards sex.” Just days after the ad went up, it was covered with a tarp to placate citizen complaints. The controversy proved the best publicity.

The film opened exclusively in New York and L.A. last week, and has plans to platform to 30 theaters by this weekend. But the limited release is all really a big buzz machine working toward a tastier target: homevideo/DVD sales.

“The big motivating factor in our involvement was our video department,” says Werner, “that’s where a film like this can really do well.”

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