Big names but weighty themes this season

The specialty film class of fall 2008 includes some disturbing and bleak storylines that will need careful marketing at time when moviegoers might want to escape the real-life reality of a failing U.S. economy.

All the while, studio specialty arms and the bigger indie companies will try their best to keep marketing costs in check. That won’t be easy, considering spending has been on the rise in recent years, to the point where the line between marketing a studio movie and a specialty title has begun to blur.

The final four months of the year are the traditional resting ground for more serious, adult-skewing fare that dominates the awards race. Last year, the specialty biz got a rude shock when adult moviegoers rejected a handful of politically themed dramas dealing with the war on Iraq and the Bush administration’s foreign policies.

This fall, there may not be a slew of Iraqi war pics or films about geopolitics, but there’s no shortage of difficult subject matter, from two Holocaust-related pics to harrowing suburban angst to a Catholic priest accused of molestation.

The roster of stars appearing in fall specialty pics is weighty — including Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sean Penn, Gael Garcia Bernal, Julianne Moore and Anne Hathaway.

But star names don’t necessarily count as much as they used to. Once upon a time, indie films with name talent didn’t require as much marketing spend, since a specialty arm or indie distrib could use the star to build awareness. Those days are gone, although stars continue to be a key part of specialty campaigns.

“It used to be that if you had a big star, you could do your campaign on the cheap and still have great awareness,” one studio specialty exec says. “Also, stars would get on board and expect less. Now, everyone has stars, so you have to spend more on media.”

For the fall specialty titles, the trick will be to get enough of a foothold to keep expanding on good word-of-mouth and reviews.

In selling their dramas, indie marketers are sure to highlight themes of redemption and triumph of the spirit, hoping that this resonates with auds.

On Nov. 7, Miramax opens “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,” about the son of a Nazi officer who befriends a Jewish boy living in an adjoining concentration camp. The Nazi son’s officer ultimately sneaks into the camp to be with his friend, with terrible consequences.

Searchlight has two titles it will likely market as underdog-turned-hero parables — Darren Aronofsky’s Mickey Rourke starrer “The Wrestler” and Danny Boyle’s pic “Slumdog Millionaire” (Warner Bros. is a full partner on “Slumdog,” which originated at Warner Independent Pictures).

Both pics will take special handling. U.S. auds always have a hard time warming up to a pic like “Slumdog,” which is partly in the Hindi language.

Still, even Searchlight’s competitors agree that “Slumdog,” despite several violent scenes and a brutal portrayal of intense poverty in India, has all the elements to score at the box office: an underdog, redemption, humor and a love story.

“Wrestler’s” campaign is likely to focus on Rourke’s performance. Aronofsky’s latest project has been a favorite on the fest circuit, winning the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival and gaining instant buzz at Toronto.

Other films that have difficult storylines but that could become factors in the performance award categories include Miramax’s drama “Doubt,” starring Streep and Hoffman. Based on John Patrick Shanley’s play, with Shanley also directing, the Scott Rudin-produced drama is about a nun who confronts a priest about molesting a boy.

On Dec. 26, DreamWorks and Vantage open Sam Mendes’ Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet starrer “Revolutionary Road” in a limited run. It’s the first bigscreen pairing of the two stars since “Titanic,” a point Par is sure to hammer home in its marketing, but the two movies couldn’t be further apart. “Revolutionary Road,” based on the Richard Yates novel, is about 1950s suburban angst.

There’s also Clint Eastwood’s Angelina Jolie drama “Changeling,” which bows in an exclusive run on Oct. 24 before opening nationwide Oct. 31 via Universal. The film is based on the real-life story of a single mother in 1920s Los Angeles whose son is kidnapped by a serial killer.

There are three political pics this fall from pedigreed directors; Lionsgate’s “W,” Oliver Stone’s pic on the Bush administration; Focus Features’ Harvey Milk biopic “Milk,” directed by Gus Van Sant and toplining Sean Penn, and Universal’s limited release “Frost/Nixon,” directed by Ron Howard.

Lionsgate will go wide with “W,” which opens on Oct. 17, three weeks before the presidential election, hoping to ride the buzz surrounding the campaign.

If studio specialty divisions and the bigger indie distribs have any advantage heading into the fall, it’s that there aren’t as many titles this year. Prestige titles will have more room to breathe, although the playing field gets crowded in December.

Opening opposite “Doubt” on Dec. 12 is the Holocaust-related “Defiance,” from Paramount Vantage. Directed by Edward Zwick, film toplines Daniel Craig as one of three Jewish brothers who flee Nazi-occupied Poland and escape into the forest, where they join Russian resistance fighters. Vantage will tout the pic as an action-thriller.

Specialty comedies, even if dark, could have an easier time attracting auds. Over the Sept. 12-14 weekend, Ethan and Joel Coen’s “Burn After Reading” debuted to $19.4 million, the best-ever gross for a Coen brothers pic and Focus Features.

Sony Pictures Classics opens Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” a drama with comedic elements on Oct. 3, starring Hathaway, while Miramax opens “Happy-Go-Lucky,” a lighter Mike Leigh film than his previous arthouse faves like “Vera Drake,” Oct. 10.

Going with a wide release, as “Burn After Reading” did, means a major media spend on a nationwide basis.

“The whole economic mode of a limited release has changed,” one indie marketing exec says. “It’s almost easier to do a wide release than a specialty film. You have to do many of the same things that you do for a wide release. A trailer still costs the same amount, whether or not it is a specialty film and you are opening it limited.”

“You used to be able to cheat on a campaign for an indie film,” the exec continues, “but not any more.”

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