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Fox Searchlight topper basks in Oscar light

'Slumdog,' 'Juno' characterize Utley's reign at distrib

For Nancy Utley, salesmanship isn’t about selling people what they don’t think they need. Or even selling them something they don’t think they want. It’s about selling them movies they think they actively dislike: films without stars. Films without English. Films about pregnant teenagers. Films about dorks. And then watching those films win awards.

Utley, now president of Fox Searchlight along with Stephen Gilula, has been the marketing guru at the specialty label from its “Boys Don’t Cry” campaign through its multiple Academy Award triumph for “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“We knew it was an outstanding movie,” she says of “Slumdog,” “but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that a movie that’s one-third in Hindi and with no known cast would go on and capture the hearts of the world.”

But Utley’s brand of B.O. success (with, among others, “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Juno” and “The Wrestler”) isn’t something that happens by accident. While she says the secret is buying good movies “because the audience will pick up the ball and do the work for you,” strategy controls everything, including color schemes.

“Getting advertising noticed in noisy advertising environments, such as movie theater lobbies, can be challenging, especially for films with limited budgets,” she says. “One technique which has worked for some of our films is a type of ‘color branding.’ In that way, the orange stripes for ‘Juno’ or the particular green for ‘Sideways’ become easily recognizable to moviegoers over time.”

While Utley says her ascension to the Searchlight presidency has made her less involved with marketing, she’s intimately acquainted with the plans for fall releases, including Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut “Whip It,” and “Crazy Heart,” starring Robert Duvall, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges.

“I have to be a little less hands-on in the marketing,” she says, “but still really love it, so it will never be too far from my grasp.”

IN A NUTSHELL

Job title: President, Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mentor: “Bob Harper, who’s currently at New Regency. I learned so much by watching him handle a lot of challenging situations, and use those lessons now.”

Career mantra: “I was taught as a kid to never put your name on something unless it’s your best work.”

Leisure pursuits: Needlepoint

Philanthropic passions: Lupus L.A. and Step Up Women’s Network (“They do a lot of great things for teenage girls and women including helping teenagers to get into college.”)

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