Lionsgate moves early to generate 'Warrior' buzz

Lionsgate knows that in the testosterone-fueled world of mixed martial arts, you need to bring the fight to the fans early.

That’s why the distributor has already started promoting its MMA-themed “Warrior” specifically to those who follow the increasingly popular sport, even though the film won’t be released until September.

It’s a savvy move. The MMA crowd has demonstrated a willingness to spend on product it’s attracted to, while at the same time rejecting entertainment that doesn’t meet its standards.

“They are a demanding group,” says Josh Gross, who covers MMA for ESPN.com. “It is a very loyal following considering where the sport came from. Even four or five years ago, it was an underground sport. That has changed significantly, but the attitude hasn’t.”

Fans of MMA are more than willing to fork over coin for something they like. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, a highly successful promoter of MMA bouts, has pulled in impressive revenues from pay-per-view events, including a reported gross of more than $40 million (some 800,000 buys at $44.99 a pop — $54.99 in HD) for an April bout between Georges St. Pierre and Jake Shields.

Yet feature films focusing on the MMA world haven’t fared well. Neither Summit’s underdog movie “Never Back Down” nor the David Mamet-directed drama “Redbelt” were big financial successes at the box office. “Never Back Down” grossed less than $25 million, while “Redbelt” pulled in just $2.34 million. (Both films were released in 2008.)

So Lionsgate is aiming early to connect the sport’s fans with the movie, among other things partnering with two popular brands in the MMA universe — Under Armour and TapouT — with both playing prominent roles in the film.

The distributor also has identified the military audience as a strong supporter of MMA product, and has targeted them, recently sending the film’s cast to Marines Corps base Camp Pendleton, Calif., for a special screening and a question-and-answer session with soldiers. Lionsgate also has lined up numerous screenings nationwide for MMA fans to build word-of-mouth.

In addition, the company has honed in on influential MMA bloggers and media. Gross, who was invited to an early showing, gave a positive review to the action-drama, which stars Tom Hardy (“Inception”) as the son of an alcoholic former boxer (played by Nick Nolte) who returns home to find himself and train for an MMA tournament that also features his brother (Joel Edgerton of “King Arthur”). Gross did point out, however, that for the most devoted fans, there are a few moves in the ring that will come across as inaccurate.

Despite the promotional focus, Lionsgate marketing chief Tim Palen emphasizes what he sees as the pic’s larger appeal.

“It’s been 35 years since America fell in love with ‘Rocky,’ and in 2011, MMA is one of the fastest growing sports in the world,” he says. “?’Warrior’ appeals strongly to a broad audience — older females are one of the strongest quads in testing — and the emotional pull of the film is universal.”

It’s uncertain whether an effort to underscore the film’s wider themes will also draw MMA’s most serious fans. After all, “Never Back Down” didn’t quite hit when it attempted to lure a wide-ranging audience by combining an MMA backdrop with a more “Karate Kid”-like storyline. (Like “Never Back Down,” “Warrior” also has underdog themes.) On the other hand, “Redbelt” took a more focused approach to MMA and still failed at the box office.

Spike TV exec Brian Diamond, who developed the network’s popular MMA show “The Ultimate Fighter,” believes that while current MMA fans are certainly intense about their sport, they will not be put off by a marketing campaign that doesn’t completely cater to them.

“Hardcore MMA fans are going to come, as long as it’s a movie that’s either relatable or it’s a film they can be moved by,” he says. “It’s sort of like ‘Field of Dreams.’ It isn’t a baseball movie, it’s a metaphor. If along the way they tell a good story and they do it with MMA, then it will work.”

Lionsgate’s broader plan includes targeting sports fans in general, featuring, for instance radio advertising on ESPN sports radio, a move Gross says he hadn’t seen before for a feature MMA project.

“It’s a good film, and it felt more like a sporting venture than just an MMA movie,” Gross says. “If you market it more as a sports story … even if you’re not an MMA fan, this film can draw you in.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more