Motive walks demo tightrope for new pic

After church groups helped buoy “The Passion of the Christ” to one of the top-earning films of all time, marketing gurus began devising strategies to reach the faithful.

Few have cracked the formula better than Paul Lauer and his Motive Entertainment, the niche marketing firm that spearheaded “Passion’s” faith-based efforts as well as those for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “The Polar Express.”

Now, the 7-year-old Santa Monica-based outfit faces one of its biggest challenges: launching a grass-roots campaign that targets religious and secular audiences for Roland Joffe’s “There Be Dragons.” Motive’s drive, which includes a trailer and key art tailored for both demos, kicks off this month in anticipation of what filmmakers hope to be an Easter 2011 bow.

The $37 million “Dragons,” which focuses on the founder of Opus Dei, faces a number of hurdles, especially recent PR hits taken by both Opus Dei and the Catholic Church. Further complicating the picture, the film doesn’t yet have a domestic distributor, though that isn’t uncommon for films made outside the studio system like “Passion.” What is unusual is the amount of resources being dedicated to drum up buzz even before the film has landed a release date.

Set during the Spanish Civil War, the pic tells the story of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, who was eventually canonized by the Catholic Church.

Joffe, who made his mark with critically acclaimed films such as “The Mission” and “The Killing Fields,” wrote, directed and invested his own coin in “Dragons,” which stars Charlie Cox (“Stardust”), WesBentley (“American Beauty”) and Olga Kurylenko (“Quantum of Solace”).

Though Joffe had creative control of the project, members of Opus Dei played major roles in producing, financing and consulting on the set. The secretive organization within the Catholic Church is best known by most audiences as spawning the villain in “The Da Vinci Code.” Some historians also have tied Escriva de Balaguer to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Still, controversy can help drive audiences to the cineplex, as happened with “Passion.”

For Lauer, the job is simple — spread the holy and universal themes explored in the film via a technique called replicasting. The method, which Motive exploited successfully with “Passion” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” calls for Lauer’s team to identify and sell the film to so-called channel partners.

“We target pastors, teachers, youth leaders, speakers, authors, influencers, heads of organizations or even a really on-fire mom,” explained Lauer, who is working with a budget of $1 million-$2 million, comparable to “Passion’s” early campaign. “We create that bond with these channel partners, and we then equip them to narrow-cast to their group. They then become receivers and transmitters.”

Lauer, who heads up Motive’s 10-employee operation, only takes on a couple of films per year so as not to inundate his go-to channel partners.

“You can’t keep coming to them asking favors. That gets old,” he says. “You have to come offering things that benefit them whatever their agenda is, whatever their motives are.”

For “Dragons,” that means exploring the theme of healing family divisions — a popular motif within houses of worship. For the film’s secular campaign, Lauer’s team will highlight the more universal themes of love, hatred, betrayal, redemption, triumph, tragedy and civil war.

Though “Passion” played to both Catholic and Protestant audiences — giving it a much wider reach — it is unlikely “Dragons,” with its story about a Catholic saint, would appeal to evangelical audiences.

No one is expecting “Dragons” to perform like “Passion,” which earned $612 million worldwide. But if Lauer’s team can counteract negative perceptions about Opus Dei, the film could entice general filmgoers — an audience in which “Passion” fell short.

“It’s definitely a tightrope walk,” said Lauer. “Like ‘The Mission,’ one could say it’s a religious film. But also like ‘The Mission,’ one could describe it in a number of other ways.”

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