Disitrib set sail with 'Insidious,' 'Surfer'

Given this year’s brutal domestic box office, pushing out back-to-back wide releases would be a challenge for most seasoned companies.

But for a brand new outfit tackling two releases in as many weeks? Looks like FilmDistrict means business.

The newbie distributor, which during the past two weekends set sail with “Insidious” and “Soul Surfer,” proved it has the goods to back commercial titles, while sticking to a lean regimen that supports wide releases for little coin. The start-up company, backed by a key distrib partnership with Sony on”Soul Surfer,” managed to drum up early success for both films with very distinct target audiences.

Bob Berney, prexy of theatrical distribution at FilmDistrict, credited both films as effective inaugural show-and-tell for the industry. “We announced that we were going to do wider-released genre films,” he said. “And because of the timing, I felt like this was the way to go.”

With “Insidious,” Berney said the spring date helped the film stand out from a crowded later summer-early fall window for horror films, while “Soul Surfer” catered to an underserved demo — the faith-based market — and benefited from having Sony on board as distributor while FilmDistrict handled marketing.

“Insidious” launched April 1, exceeding expectations with $13.3 million. The film continued to scare up solid returns last weekend, dropping just 29% in a competitive playing field with four other wide releases.

Pic’s $26.7 million domestic cume already has more than recouped its $1 million production cost, as well as the near $20 million FilmDistrict spent on marketing.

And while sports-themed biopic “Soul Surfer” cost more (around $18 million), FilmDistrict is responsible for just the P&A fund, a comparable spend to that of “Insidious,” sources say. “Soul Surfer,” which Sony acquired to distribute, opened in line with industry expectations at a revised $10.6 million.

FilmDistrict tackled both tried-and-true and non-traditional marketing schemes, including flash-mob screenings of “Insidious” where potential moviegoers were given only a few hours notice of advance screenings via targeted email blasts. The company also organized 350-400 promo screenings of “Soul Surfer,” using Sony faith-based label Affirm Films to screen the pic for churches and religious leaders.

The word-of-mouth campaigns relied mostly on the films themselves, Berney said, which also helped keep marketing costs down.

“It was definitely viewed as a bold plan,” Berney said, “but I thought it would make a real statement if it worked, and luckily it did.”

Both titles’ early success can only mean good news for the start-up company as it looks to its remaining 2011 slate. Next up for FilmDistrict is former Miramax title, Guillermo Del Toro-produced “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” on Aug. 21, followed by Ryan Gosling-Carey Mulligan starrer “Drive” on Sept. 16 and Johnny Depp pet project “The Rum Diary” on Oct. 28.

Distrib will look to acquire maybe one more release this year at the Cannes Film Festival, with a release mandate going forward of seven to eight films per year. “We’ll try to be leaner and meaner with quality films,” Berney noted. “That’s what you need to do as an independent to make the margin.”

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