Grant vs. Goliath in summer gamble

U revives art of counterprogramming with 'Boy'

The theory behind megaplex building and aggressively targeted marketing was to make the film biz more closely resemble cable television, with options for every taste and audience.

Instead, tentpole movies routinely suck the air out of the box office. Anyone still consoling themselves with outdated notions of “spillover” crowds should look at how other pics did when “Harry Potter” arrived.

Overall box office may be surging, but counterprogramming is in a sorry state, especially in the event-filled summer. Recent releases such as “I Dreamed of Africa,” “The Love Letter” and “Shanghai Noon” have suffered from trying to provide an alternative choice.

All of this makes Universal’s “About a Boy” a fascinating summer title to watch. Several U suits unspooled the pic March 7 at ShoWest. The StudioCanal/Working Title production is set to bow May 17, the day after “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” roars into theaters.

“Boy” was co-written and directed by Paul and Chris Weitz, the team behind U’s “American Pie.” Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel, it stars Hugh Grant, Toni Collette and Rachel Weisz. Like previous Working Title/Grant efforts “Notting Hill,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” it is an effervescent British comedy that grapples with larger themes. Accordingly, its audience will likely accumulate over time and not in weekend No. 1.

At a breakfast the day after the screening, Working Title partner Eric Fellner said the scheduling was similar to what his company and Universal did with “Notting Hill.”

“I thought that was an event, but no one else did at the time,” he said. With “Boy,” he added, Universal Pictures vice chairman Marc Shmuger was among the supporters of trying to repeat “Notting’s” feat without Julia Roberts.

There were certainly debates within the company.

Skeptics wondered if Grant could carry the movie by himself, especially with nuanced material that is comparable to “High Fidelity,” a Hornby-based pic that reaped mediocre results for Disney. What would TV spots show? How would they persuade Americans to take a bite out of this British crumpet instead of Hollywood’s apple pie?

“It’s a calculated risk,” concedes Peter Adee, U’s marketing chief. “But we really feel we’re not in direct competition with ‘Star Wars.’ We’re a whole different thing. We really believe that every movie somehow finds its place. We’re obviously not going to open No. 1 but we hope to open respectably, and we’re going in with realistic expectations.”

Because it is chiefly responsible for marketing and distribution of the pic, U won’t be shouldering much risk, Adee adds. “We just want a good multiple of opening weekend to the final gross.”

Female audiences are crucial for “About a Boy,” as in the case of so many counterprogrammed pics.

USA Films is contemplating a July release of “Possession” opposite “Austin Powers 3.” Warner Bros. is a partner on the Gwyneth Paltrow romance, which is a left turn for director Neil LaBute in that no character is contemptible.

Perhaps the savviest cashing in of female counterprogramming dollars occurred in 1996, when Paramount’s John Travolta starrer “Phenomenon” held its own against Fox’s “Independence Day,” eventually surpassing $100 million domestically.

Facing down spaceships is much tougher in today’s climate, though, a fact that everyone involved with “About a Boy” acknowledges with a commendable shrug.

“Have they gotten scared yet and moved off their date?” Fellner jokes.

Adds a sardonic Paul Weitz, “We were OK with the idea of going up against ‘Star Wars,’ but we got a little concerned when we found out that Hugh Grant did the voice of Jar-Jar Binks.”

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