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‘Jesse James’ preps for U.K. release

Westerns often a hard sell overseas

Westerns are a tough sell in Blighty, no matter how good they are or how big the stars.

After the Russell Crowe oater “3:10 to Yuma” failed to rustle up an audience for Lionsgate U.K., despite excellent reviews and a $54 million Stateside gross, Warner is launching “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” into the U.K. Nov. 30, more in hope than expectation.

The studio certainly can’t be faulted for effort. “Jesse James,” starring Brad Pitt, grossed a paltry $3.8 million in the more favorable U.S. market. The aversion of British auds to cowboys is well known, so Warner’s U.K. team could be forgiven for tossing the movie away.

But instead they have bent their backs to position the pic as a must-see for Brit cinephiles, particularly in the London area, where the studio expects the movie to do 50% of its business.

In this, it has one crucial ally. Clare Binns, programming director of City Screen, controls access to most of the key arthouses in the capital. She fell in love with “Jesse James” when she saw the movie in Venice, and she’s determined to make it work.

She made an early commitment to run the movie for four weeks at her Gate cinema in trendy Notting Hill, regardless of how well it does. She also has booked it into several other premium sites across London. That’s not because she has high hopes.

“I’m going to lose my shirt,” she jokes lugubriously. “We’ve put it in the Ritzy, Greenwich, the Gate, the Everyman, Curzon Soho, the Chelsea. We’ve really bitten the bullet, which is a good metaphor for a Western, and we’re going to die with our boots on. But you’ve got to try.”

Binns cites the precedent of “3:10 to Yuma” to justify her sense of foreboding.

“It failed despite great reviews and a smart campaign. Lionsgate was really gutted; we all were. You always like to see a good film work,” she says. “Yuma” grossed $2.4 million on a 300 print release in September.

Warner’s U.K. topper Josh Berger laughs that off as typical exhibitor’s pessimism. “Clare always says she’s going to lose her shirt, but she won’t,” he says confidently.

Binns credits the Warner team for their faith in the movie, and for working so constructively with her circuit.

“Two or three years ago they would have wiped their hands of a movie like this. But they have been very supportive. I didn’t particularly like the images they were using for the main campaign, but they have been very helpful in working up something different for us,” she explains.

 “We’re increasingly having to do our own marketing on films like this, because if you don’t, it doesn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance,” she adds.

Says Berger: “Even with Brad Pitt in it, this can’t be sold as a broad commercial film. But it can be sold to film lovers, cinephiles, in arthouses and the right multiplexes.”

“Jesse James” is going out on a relatively modest 65 prints nationwide. But 25 of those are blanketing the London region, where posters highlighting all the five-star reviews are plastered all over the subways. Warner has gone the extra mile by printing 75,000 brochures, densely printed on fake parchment in a faux-Western style, which have been circulated at the key sites.

Warner’s director of U.K. marketing Ashley Wirasinha admit that such material would be more likely to scare off popcorn audiences, but the studio is laser-targeting its message at the specialized crowd that relishes uncompromising cinema.

Internet outfit Tiscali created a web version bringing the brochure to life online. City Screen and the Guardian newspaper, whose upscale readers form the movie’s target audience, collaborated on a nationwide program of free previews. In a positive omen, the influential London listings mag Time Out told Warner that its reader screening of “Jesse James” was its most oversubscribed movie event of this year.

Warner and City Screen have clearly done everything they can think of to challenge the British resistance to such undiluted Americana, at a time when there are several Oscar-tipped pics with a similar Western flavor. The results for “Jesse James” will also offer a clue about the prospects for the Coens’ contemporary oater “No Country for Old Men,” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s historical oil drama “There Will Be Blood” when they arrive in Blighty early in the New Year.

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