Can ‘Seabiscuit’ nuzzle auds?

Summer horseracing drama could skew older

It is tough enough to sell Oscar bait in December.

In July, however, the popcorn-fueled masses can be especially resistant to period dramas with prestigious casts. DreamWorks discovered as much last year with so-so returns on “The Road to Perdition.”

The calendar is only one of the challenges for “Seabiscuit,” an $80 million co-production by Universal, DreamWorks and Spyglass. The horse-racing saga bows July 25 against two more typical summer entries: “Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life” and “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over.”

Hollywood will be watching eagerly to see if the weekend signals the beginning of the Oscar race or the end of an expensive experiment.

Given the heavy off-track betting on “Seabiscuit,” Universal (the domestic distributor), its producers, director Gary Ross and book author Laura Hillenbrand are reluctant to talk about the pic’s handling.

But the town is already starting to identify some upside and downside factors.

On the upside:

  • It’s Tobey Maguire’s first film since “Spider-Man” and Oscar winner Chris Cooper’s first since “Adaptation”;

  • It’s based on Hillenbrand’s 2001 bestseller about the public’s fascination with an underdog horse during the dark days of the Depression;

  • Funny Cide could become the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown. U is eagerly awaiting the June 7 Belmont Stakes race and could enjoy a marketing bounce if the horse wins.

Then the downside:

  • The main character is a horse. It is not an accident that Hollywood has not turned out a popular movie about the ponies since “National Velvet.” Purists are already carping that Maguire is too big (!) to play a jockey;

  • Ross has written successful studio pics like “Big” and “Dave,” but his only other directing assignment was “Pleasantville.” That 1998 New Line release cumed $40 million — a respectable number but no guarantee of summer pay dirt;

  • Aside from Maguire, there may not be enough of a lure for women. The conventional thinking is that horses intrinsically appeal to women. But last summer’s animated “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” never really cashed in on the expected interest from girls.

Studios have avoided horseracing films for other good reasons. One obvious deterrent has been the graying of the sport’s fan base even with efforts to update the sport’s image such as the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn.’s “Go Baby Go” advertising campaign.

Universal has already been positioning the pic as a high-class alternative to the usual summer fare.

Dramas have a spotty track record in the summer. “Forrest Gump” and “Ghost” triumphed a decade ago, but the path to Oscar gold is also littered with the likes of “Eyes Wide Shut.” U had its own drama with summer drama in 1992 with “Far and Away.”

Proponents see “Seabiscuit” as an unabashed crowdpleaser with “Rocky”-like potential for adult auds. The story aggregates a group of underdogs who achieve glory in the depths of the Depression.

“If the film is good enough, the release date shouldn’t be the obstacle it might appear,” notes one Oscar consultant not formally linked to the pic. “You’ve got to remember that we have an accelerated campaign season this year that makes Thanksgiving into the new Christmas, so late July isn’t really as early as it seems.”

It’s also worth noting that sports films generally have not been slam dunks in recent years. “The Rookie” was a solid double for Disney at $75.6 million domestic but the handsomely mounted golf drama “The Legend of Bagger Vance” was a double bogey.

U has been positioning “Seabiscuit” carefully thus far. Ads with promo partner Buick — whose owners’ average age is 65 — began airing during NBC’s May 3 coverage of the Kentucky Derby. An extended trailer screened to admiring reaction at ShoWest in March.

U has also been partnered with the NTRA to set up promo events such as a sweepstakes to win a trip to Los Angeles for the world preem. Benefit screenings will be held at the horse-racing capitals of Saratoga, Louisville and Lexington.

A junket is on tap at Santa Anita, Seabiscuit’s home track. Hall of Fame jockeys Gary Stevens, who portrays Goerge Woolf in the film, and Chris McCarron, who served as race designer and consultant on the film, will also be on the stump.

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