Specialty pic's platform release pays dividends

Overture Film, Groundswell Prods. and Participant Media’s “The Visitor” has taken up residence at the domestic box office — a notable accomplishment on several fronts.

For one, it’s the first specialty pic since the Oscars aired to make the top-10 box office chart.

The film’s domestic cume of $5.4 million through June 4 is impressive for the fact that the film has been a pure platform release, a seemingly endangered breed.

More interestingly perhaps, “The Visitor” takes on U.S. policy in the post-9/11 world, specifically, America’s immigration and detention policies.

So why did it work where so many other issues-driven films grappling with the war on terrorism or the war in Iraq failed?

One reason may be that Overture and Participant positioned “The Visitor” not as a post-9/11 story but as a character-driven film.

The film, co-financed by Participant Prods. and Michael London‘s Groundswell, was written and directed by Tom McCarthy and revolves around a college professor who forms an unlikely friendship with a young Syrian musician and African woman. The musician is plucked off the streets of New York, detained and ultimately deported. Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, Hiam Abbass and Marian Seldes star.

“Dramas can work, as long as you entertain and give audiences compelling characters,” says Overture prexy of worldwide marketing and distribution Peter Adee.

Participant finances and produces films aimed at raising social awareness. In the case of “The Visitor,” the company hopes to focus auds on the detention policies of the U.S. government. The company has even helped organize free training for immigration attorneys on the subject.

There’s been plenty of bad news for the specialty film biz of late. Both Warner Bros. and Paramount are shuttering their respective specialty film arms as stand-alone units. Warners also is closing down Bob Berney‘s Picturehouse.

“The Visitor” provides a glimmer of hope that pure platform releases can survive, and even thrive, on word-of-mouth.

“I can advertise and publicize a movie all I want,” Adee says, “but if it works, it’s also because people are talking about it.”

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