New film legends of the fall

Two longshots show B.O. promise in tricky slots

This was the year “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” choked, “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” was stillborn, and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” was somewhat less than extraordinary. That’s why “School of Rock” and “Lost In Translation” portend so well. These two burgeoning success stories have combined costs that would fail to cover the F/X bill on any one of those tentpole pics.

And while the financing and distribution of these movies are quite different, both are very much the products of their filmmakers’ visions.

Sofia Coppola shot and edited “Lost In Translation” before her distributor even saw it.

Scott Rudin produced “School of Rock” in the same spirit that made him champion projects like “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” and “Wonder Boys.”

And he put his clout to work by insisting on iconoclastic director Richard Linklater.

With both films, matters of franchises, sequels and action figures were not deemed relevant.

Paramount Pictures vice chairman Rob Friedman crows that the Jack Black comedy “School of Rock,” which opened wide Oct. 3 at no. 1 with a $19.6 million weekend, is “one of the top two or three best-reviewed movies in recent Paramount history.”

Focus Features’ “Lost In Translation,” which stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as platonic soul mates who find each other in Tokyo, is a very different sort of movie.

But like Par’s pic, it’s hard to find a review that isn’t euphoric. The film has already earned more than $15 million in a platform release that has yet to reach 1,000 screens.

It’s rare for a wide release to make a splash in the dog days of late summer and early fall, a period often reserved for programming filler for which distributors have low expectations. (Witness Par’s release of another Rudin pic, the long-delayed “Marci X.”)

Specialty titles face the opposite problem: Many with lofty ambitions begin their platform runs in the fall, making for a high casualty rate even for festival faves.

When Coppola began writing “Lost In Translation” three years ago, she was a promising filmmaker still dwarfed by her last name. Her feature bow, “The Virgin Suicides,” had earned a modest $5 million in domestic B.O. and good reviews.

It wasn’t a track record that would make a distrib grant her final cut.

So Coppola didn’t ask.

Instead, armed only with a spare 75-page script, ICM agent Bart Walker pre-sold rights to Japan’s Tohokushinsha, France’s Pathe and Italy’s Mikado. As the film began production, Focus came aboard to sell the rest of the world outside North America.

This piecemeal financing of the pic’s $4 million-plus budget allowed Coppola to own the film and to maintain total control over a production that would have given a studio several cases of the heebie-jeebies.

That’s because dialogue was improvised, locations were shot on the fly and, in a key scene at in a karaoke bar, Bill Murray warbled Roxy Music’s “More Than This” before Coppola had cleared the music. (It cleared. Murray’s rendition can now be heard as a hidden cut on the film’s soundtrack.)

Walker had planned to sell the film’s domestic rights at a 2003 festival. His client, however, had other ideas.

“She made the decision that she wanted the film out this year,” says Walker. “That was a change in strategy.”

In February, Focus toppers James Schamus and David Linde screened Coppola’s final cut on video projection and bought the domestic rights for $4 million. The international deal gave them tremendous leverage; not only did they have first-look on the pic, but Coppola cut her price in gratitude for the good deals they’d made for the film overseas.

Meanwhile, competitors were asked to pay $5 million for North America on the basis of a three-minute trailer that screened in Focus’ suite at the American Film Market.

Distribution was a given for “School of Rock” and, with a budget under $35 million, the costs weren’t going to keep the studio up nights.

The difficulty came in convincing Linklater that Par really believed in the film that he would want to make.

Although Linklater loved Mike White’s script, “It was kind of a tough decision for me,” says the helmer, who first made his mark with the 1991 indie pic “Slacker.”

“You wonder: Is it going to be your film? You go through the nightmare scenarios.”

Linklater knows those nightmares firsthand. Although he says he’s never been prevented from making the film he wanted, he has also seen what happens when it’s not a film that the studio wants to promote.

“‘Dazed and Confused’ was a lot of studio notes and psychic drain,” Linklater says. “I had a similar experience on ‘The Newton Boys.’ I’ve always been proud of the movie I made, but with the release date, the ad campaign — you can tell if they’re lofting up a turkey to get shot down.

“This is the first time it worked,” Linklater says. “Rudin is my kind of guy.”

Linklater says the studio stood behind all of the filmmaking team’s decisions, from casting musical prodigies rather than child actors to the choice of Black as would-be rock god Dewey Finn.

“We had talked about Jack from (the Rudin-produced) ‘Orange County,’ but we were quizzical about the idea of him in a family movie,” says Friedman.

Through films like “High Fidelity” and “Shallow Hal,” Black’s raunchy persona had brought him a loyal following. (It is hardly surprising, for example, that despite a high tyke quotient, “Rock” is rated PG-13.)

However, the task of opening a movie had never pivoted on Black’s charms. Friedman says he stopped worrying after he met Black, who first gained attention as half of the satirical rock duo Tenacious D and shared the exec’s love of Led Zeppelin.

Hollywood has, to be sure, released more than its share of original and creative movies that never find an audience.

That hasn’t been the case for either “Lost In Translation” or “School of Rock,” though the reasons are very different.

The marketing of “Lost In Translation” has been handled with all the care and calculation of Japanese flower arranging.

“We were really impressed with their whole team,” says “Lost In Translation” producer Ross Katz. “We’d been sitting in a room with the film, not thinking about things like marketing at all.”

Schamus and Linde wanted the campaign to feel romantic rather than arch. They pointed marketing prexy David Brooks toward films like “Roman Holiday” and “About Schmidt” for inspiration.

With that in mind, the film bowed at the Telluride Film Festival, followed shortly by its prize-winning reception at the Venice Film Festival. Focus also hosted intimate media screenings that included Q&As with the director and the often-reclusive Murray.

Lynn Hirschberg’s rapturous profile of Coppola on the cover of the Aug. 31 edition of the New York Times Magazine was an added coup. It mentioned the film in the same breath as “Academy Award” within the second paragraph and compared the director to Chekhov in the third.

“School of Rock,” on the other hand, has been an all-American fastball down the middle.

Black has made appearances on everything from the season preem of “Saturday Night Live” to “The “Sharon Osbourne Show,” sometimes with the School of Rock band in tow.

Then there’s the one-sheets, which feature Black and his pint-size bandmates in various rock-star poses. It’s nothing fancy, but it makes the movie’s intentions crystal-clear.

If anything, it’s possible that Par’s reach wasn’t quite wide enough.

Friedman says the primary targets were Black fans (mostly men under 25) and parents who would take their kids.

However, a recent screening on a weekday evening in Los Angeles contained about 100 ticket buyers, evenly divided between men and women. Everyone appeared to be over 35; a few qualified for the senior citizen discount.

Now that this fresh and eclectic film is a hit, it only remains to be seen how that could be duplicated in the sequel. Right?

“I don’t know,” Friedman laughs. “If we’re aren’t (talking about it), we should be.”

He pauses. “I’m sure we are.”