Self-distrib a new chapter for Grisham

Writer, helmer Wilson to unspool 'Mickey' on 36 screens

Author John Grisham and director Hugh Wilson are in the hole at least $6 million after deciding to finance and self-distribute “Mickey,” a family film Grisham scripted and Wilson directed.

The film opens today on 36 screens in six Southern cities, including Dallas, Nashville and Memphis. Twelve cities will be added over the next two weeks for a total of 110 screens.

The campaign for the film — about an on-the-lam father (Harry Connick Jr.) who risks being arrested if he allows his gifted son to play Little League baseball — has been orchestrated by Grisham and Wilson, with help from consultant John Vanco.

“We hired a guy who knew how to book and collect and he got us into some great screens, the Regals, the Carmikes, prime spots. We just had to show the theaters that we’d spent some money on marketing and then I’d go to those cities and do a ton of PR. That opened the door,” Grisham said.

After splitting the costs to make the film, Grisham and Wilson were turned down by studios and were so disenchanted with distribution alternatives that they decided to wait for the start of the Little League season and do it themselves.

While they are buoyed by the way “The Passion of the Christ” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” performed despite small marketing budgets, the partners are aware that financing and distributing a film is a good way to lose one’s shirt.

Wilson has a lot fewer shirts in his proverbial closet than his fiction-writing partner.

“Put it like this: One of us is no longer rich,” Wilson said. “I might well be back directing three-camera television again, which would be a shame. But after the majors passed, we had little choice because the deals presented by other distributors left us no room to make money.”

Grisham, who has cashed studio checks for upward of $8 million for the rights to books like “A Time to Kill” and “Runaway Jury,” was only slightly more bullish.

“We thought we’d make a film so wonderful that studios would line up to throw money at us. We’ve found it isn’t terribly complicated to distribute ourselves: You book theaters and put together marketing and PR.”

Wilson, who wrote ad copy before getting a job on “The Bob Newhart Show” and then created “WKRP in Cincinnati,” helped out with radio commercials and worked directly with Grisham on the movie poster.

Grisham has been barnstorming in Dallas, Raleigh, N.C., Nashville, Memphis, Richmond, Va., and Charlottesville, Va., to build awareness. He’ll visit 12 more cities over the next two weeks. Instead of TV spots, they’ve hired guerrilla marketers to infiltrate Little League games, handing out shirts and baseball cards with the actors on them.

Grisham and Wilson hope the film will play strongly enough that a distributor will come in and make a national launch. Short of that, they hope to create enough awareness to ensure a bank account-saving DVD sale.

“Even now, I’m not sure I’d want to do anything differently,” Grisham said.

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