Hollywood searches for Heartland’s pulse

Smart execs reach beyond L.A., Gotham borders

For some reason, Anastasia Brown agreed to meet the screenwriter. As president of the Nashville-based media holding group 821 Entertainment, Brown makes it her business to help Hollywood connect with the rest of America, and this guy claimed he’d crafted a story specifically to appeal to the Heartland — a movie based in Tennessee’s largest city.

After reading his script, Brown had one question: “Have you ever actually been to Nashville?”

“No,” the writer admitted.

Brown wasn’t surprised. His screenplay was packed with cliches, heavy with “y’alls” and overalls and diners. While Nashville has all those things, she says, the screenplay magnified them to such a degree it felt preposterous and inauthentic.

According to Brown, that sort of oversimplification bordering on contempt has long been emblematic of Hollywood’s approach to the Heartland in general and the South in particular.

And yet, it’s a market they can’t afford to ignore. With box office numbers declining, Hollywood has to figure a way to connect with the 277 million Americans who live somewhere other than Los Angeles or New York City.

Pixar chief John Lasseter gets it. His NASCAR-themed “Cars” raced its way to $240 million this summer.

At Warner Bros., production prexy Jeff Robinov also sees the value in movies aimed at Middle America. “Dukes of Hazzard” made $80 million, mainly in the Heartland.

Sony chair Amy Pascal did even better with “Talladega Nights,” which is zooming toward $150 million.

By tapping into the country-wide NASCAR craze, those three pics have earned more than sleek big-city movies “Superman Returns,” “Mission: Impossible III” and “Miami Vice” combined.

The problem, as the New Yorker recently asserted in a story about the Blue Collar Comedy phenom, is that entertainment execs are reluctant “to confront the idea that there are indeed two Americas and that theirs — the isolate island states of Manhattan and Hollywood — is wildly out of step with the rest of the country.”

Brown and other experts say the surprise $370 million take of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 jolted the industry into recognizing an enormous unmet demand in the Heartland.

When Sony roadtrip comedy “R.V.” in its second frame outperformed “MI3’s” opening weekend in 223 theaters — in towns like Toledo, Charleston, Orlando and Omaha — it suggests that explosions (or Tom Cruise action movies) aren’t necessarily what mainstream auds want from the megaplex.

“Dust movies,” once a no-no with production execs who believed auds only wanted to see stories set in metropolitan locations, are one answer. But it’s not just rural-themed pics like “Walk the Line” and “The Notebook” that connect with Heartland moviegoers; so do stories that take place in far different locales, including family-friendly movies such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

“There are a lot of movies that totally speak to the audience,” says Marty Bowen, a former UTA partner who left agency life to produce “The Nativity Story,” “Paper Wings” and other Heartland-friendly pics for New Line. “Who didn’t enjoy ‘Lord of the Rings’? So Hollywood definitely does a lot of things right. There’s a reason why our movie business is so dominant worldwide. We’re great storytellers, but we do miss out on a lot of stuff.”

Paul Moore, co-chief operations officer of William Morris’ Nashville operation, says Hollywood needs to pay more attention to the Heartland. When he joined the agency in 1978, there were 10 people in the Nashville office. There are now 62, and he says the office is still growing.

“About five years ago, we transferred one of our … television agents from Beverly Hills to Nashville,” he notes. “We had an honest-to-goodness Beverly Hills television agent, on the ground, living, working and breathing in Nashville.”

Moore says having a presence in the Heartland helps the agency understand what that broad audience.

“Hollywood continues to build this whole premise that somewhere out here in Middle America, we’re not quite as clever as they are,” he observes.

That’s one mistake Country Music Television is determined not to make.

“It’s a big country out there between New York and L.A., and one of the things about CMT we’ve worked very hard to do is understand who our audience is and recognize that their sensibilities and their tastes are different than what you find in New York or L.A.,” says Paul Villadolid, CMT’s vice president of programming and development.

With just shy of 83 million subscribers, Nashville-based CMT boasts an impressive audience. And those viewers aren’t solely in the South, either, Villadolid says.

“CMT is found all across the country because we communicate a sensibility that reaches out beyond geography,” he says.

The network’s numerous focus groups and extensive research show what the Heartland is looking for, says Carole Smith, VP of research and planning.

It’s not complicated. “They are looking for entertainment that they can watch with their family,” she says — movies and television shows like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” that conform to their values. “Even if they don’t watch with their children, they don’t have to change the channel if their children walk in the room.”

At the same time, she says, it would be a mistake to believe the Heartland is one-dimensional. “You cannot really pigeonhole them,” she says.

Brown sees hope in successes such as “Talladega Nights,” but worries that if the next few don’t hit, Hollywood will once again ignore the Heartland.

“I hope they do their research,” she says, “because there’s definitely a lot of money to be made when done right.”

And while studios may be slow to rethink their product, other industryites are already aiming beyond Hollywood’s borders.

“We really tailor the campaign for the Heartland,” says Trailer Park CEO Tim Nett, whose company helped market “X-Men 3” and “Cars.” “If we do anything differently, we do it for L.A. and New York.”

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