Shingle will rely on online buzz, lean budgets to draw teen target

Once upon a time, genre labels were studios’ high-profit, low-profile siblings. Today, they’re positioned to take center stage.

That’s the wager at 20th Century Fox, where teen-oriented label Fox Atomic is prepping its first release, horror pic “Turistas,” for a Dec. 1 bow.

The new genre label could have been little more than a shiny toy for topper Peter Rice; Fox created the division to keep him from taking the top job at Paramount Vantage. However, Rice is giving serious consideration to his new playground.

As a well-educated and urbane Brit making movies for teens, Rice — who wouldn’t comment for this article — likes the idea of counterprogramming. He’s more likely to make a movie about the losing teams (hence “The Comebacks,” due out in March). And he’s vowed to all but forswear print advertising, instead investing heavily in online and viral marketing. The company also has an edict to develop new-media content.

To assist him in his endeavor, Rice brought over Lionsgate vet John Hegeman as chief operating officer, as well as a handful of other Lionsgate alums. Not coincidentally, in many ways Atomic is stealing a page from Lionsgate’s low-cost model, as well as that of other pioneers in the field such as Screen Gems, Rogue and Dimension.

All those labels have effectively used the Web — Lionsgate with MySpace campaigns and Dimension with YouTube. However, FoxAtomic.com almost seems to sidestep movies altogether in favor of creating a free-standing entertainment haven, one designed to woo audiences with sports updates, Webisodes and a “stupid video” contest.

A year into its existence, Atomic has already discovered the genre game is harder than it looks. A remake of “Revenge of the Nerds” was supposed to be one of Atomic’s first pics. But after a location snafu at Emory U., where the pic was scheduled to shoot, the project is on hold. (Although Atomic says it is still hoping to release the film next summer, there is buzz the project may be kaput.)

Still, the genre game’s trailblazers have proved that early stumbles ultimately don’t matter. Who remembers Screen Gems’ “Timecode” and “Black and White” when the company has blockbuster franchises like “Resident Evil” and “Underworld”?

Considering those pics reap huge dividends on DVD as well as at the box office, it’s no wonder the format is being emulated, not just by studio labels but by production shingles such as Saim Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures.

“There’s such competition now,” says Screen Gems prexy Clint Culpepper. “When I started (Screen Gems), Dimension was in transition, and it felt like I was the only one out there.”

Lionsgate marketing chief Tim Palen calls the current genre craze “a gold rush.”

Spurring the madness is the continued box office success of franchises like “Saw” ($350 million for three pics worldwide) and successful revivals of cult classics like “When a Stranger Calls” ($47 million).

In this overloaded environment, Atomic hopes to mine riches others are leaving behind.

So is there a secret formula? Even before Atomic’s first release, several strategies have emerged.

? Print ads: Just say no. For the most part, anyway. Instead, put all the chips on trailers, billboards and online. The “Turistas” marketing campaign costs $30 million. That’s a fraction of what’s spent on major films, but it’s a hell of a ratio: the film, which was produced by 2929 Prods. and picked up by Atomic, cost $10 million to make.

? Keep budgets lean. Fox Atomic is staying at or below the $10 million mark for many of its movies. It’s also encouraging filmmakers to shoot digitally — a cheaper process that results in a grittier, teen-friendly look. And forget about stars. Of Atomic’s nine announced films, not one has a big-name thesp.

? Root out where young auds really live. Outside of Disney, Atomic is the only studio or specialty division to establish a parallel line of graphic novels (through sister company HarperCollins). Debut title “28 Days Later: The Aftermath,” slated for April, is meant to provide the narrative bridge between “28 Days Later” and the upcoming Fox Atomic sequel “28 Weeks Later.”

? Brand, brand, brand. Fox Atomic is betting people will come to its movies because they’re released by Atomic. The unit is trying to create a genre movie version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval: On the “Turistas” trailer, the “FoxAtomic.com” logo gets equal billing with the movie’s title.

Atomic touts its ability to exploit Fox synergies, especially online. But MySpace can’t afford to give away too much of its lucrative ad space to its subsides, so Fox Atomic will likely not get too many free rides.

The lack of established talent forces the label to reach. Without stars, “Turistas,” is left to promote itself as the movie from the auteurish precincts of the director of “Blue Crush. ”

What exactly distinguishes Fox Atomic from Fox Searchlight? Though the studio has taken pains to keep them apart –Rice splits his week between Atomic’s and Searchlight’s offices — they’re run by much the same team. Some observers wonder what exactly marks a pic as a Fox Atomic film if the unit has much of the same ambitions as Searchlight but is simply aimed at 17-24 year-olds. “It remains to be seen whether they can find enough movies in the narrow box they set for themselves,” says a genre-label exec.

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