Spiritual, religious and 60+ themes tap underserved niches

When Rocky Mountain Pictures prexy Randy Slaughter first met the makers of “The End of the Spear,” the religious drama that went on to gross $11.8 million theatrically, the unveiling of the trailer was preceded by a gathering of the producers‘ family and friends in group prayer.

Director Susan Seidelman’s “Boynton Beach Club,” a romantic comedy about love and life in the latter years, began its trajectory in South Florida where her mother Florence and a group of seniors armed with posters and fliers canvassed local senior communities, hair salons and delis to spread the word.

Devout churchgoers and aging baby boomers may not be the go-to demos for film distributors, but market-savvy indies are cashing in on these formerly underserved niches and using whatever means necessary to reach them.

“The old school Hollywood model of marketing where you throw a lot of bucks into ads for everyone may not be conducive to how the market’s evolving,” says Picturehouse prexy Bob Berney.

Passion of the flock

“The Passion of the Christ” (a pic Berney, then at Newmarket Films, helped guide to $370 million domestically, in conjunction with Mel Gibson’s Icon), opened Hollywood’s eyes to the potential of the religious niche. On the heels of that unprecedented success, many are trying to follow suit.

With about half their current slate targeting the religious market (including upcoming $18 million “One Night with the King”), execs at Rocky Mountain Pictures say they accidentally came into the Christian market in the early ’90s.

“We didn’t have a clue how to access the churchgoing audience,” Slaughter says. “We learned that there was this untapped market of people who generally didn’t want to go to multiplexes with R-rated films. We had to win over the pastors — and set up special screenings to do so.”

Every Tribe Entertainment, the producers of “The End of the Spear,” who also put up the pic’s P&A, set up a special Web site to reach out to ministries and encourage group ticket sales and the distrubution of marketing materials.

Picturehouse’s release of “Ushpizin,” targeting the orthodox Jewish community, “was truly niche,” says Berney. “The ultra-orthodox crowd doesn’t go to theaters, so we rented auditoriums in places like Brooklyn. We had to go to them.”

“Niche marketing is nothing new, but the means and methods by which these audiences can be reached is changing and has adapted the model,” says producer’s rep Jonathan Dana, whose work with “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” ($12 million-plus) and Samuel Goldwyn Films upcoming “Conversations With God” is tapping into the ever-growing spiritual niche.

“Hollywood’s mandate is to appeal to everyone. Niche marketing is not about that, and because of that you don’t have to compromise,” says veteran producer Stephen Simon, who directed “Conversations With God” and co-founded the Spiritual Cinema Circle, a subscriber DVD service targeting spiritual titles.

Spreading the word

Simon notes that the marketing strategy for “Conversations,” which is based Neale Donald Walsch’s book, included outreach to new-thought churches and word-of-mouth screenings in an 18-city tour with the author.

“In general (Hollywood) ignores any segment that isn’t four-quadrant, with the exception of perhaps teens,” adds Roadside Attractions co-prexy Howard Cohen, who together with Goldwyn is distributing “Boynton Beach Club.”

Seidelman’s film premiered at the 2005 Hamptons Film Festival to sellout crowds, who were “showing up just based on the subject matter, not word of mouth,” says the helmer. She began self-distributing the film in South Florida beginning with 10 theaters, grossing more than $600,000 before Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn came onboard.

“We had no advertising money to speak of … no trailers, no TV ads, no radio,” Seidelman emphasizes. “With a $10,000 screen average opening weekend, we grossed over $100,000, beating out ‘Walk the Line’ in one community west of Orlando. The evidence was that, across the board, older people do go to the movies.”

“It’s not that Hollywood is consciously ignoring older audiences, they’re just not actively pursuing them,” says Cohen.

Last year’s “Ladies in Lavender” grossed more than $5.5 million domestically and is another Roadside release that targeted older demos.

“It’s an opportunity for us,” says Cohen. “We’re gaining more information with each movie we release in the niche. We’re committed to finding more.”

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