Slow burn keeps ‘Old Men’ simmering

Release plan gave film a chance to build

Slow and steady sometimes does the trick.

And so does an ad line like “There’s no movie like ‘No Country.’ ”

“No Country for Old Men” is a textbook case of a release campaign ripped out of the old Miramax Films playbook, with a contemporary Internet twist.

Harvey Weinstein used to launch a pic like “Life Is Beautiful” in May at Cannes, flog it at the fall film fests in Toronto and New York, open in limited release in October or November, play through Thanksgiving and Christmas, and broaden after a slew of Oscar nominations.

Such campaigns are a long, hard, and costly slog — it’s devilishly tough to hang on to screens and maintain forward momentum — but this kind of slow release plan gives a movie like “No Country” a chance to build.

Indeed, “No Country” beat the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” $45 million domestic B.O. record well before it reaped eight Oscar noms on Jan. 22. By the end of November, “No Country” had grossed $18.5 million. Miramax pulled it back again, and then expanded prior to the Christmas holiday. Through New Year’s, the pic earned another $20+ million. And Miramax is looking to notch a $70 million domestic haul, even if the film doesn’t win best picture on Feb. 24.

Not bad for a film whose now famously ambiguous ending has frustrated even admirers. Many observers have suggested that a more satisfying ending could have yielded even bigger B.O. But part of the pic’s mystique — and allure for many early critics — is that very ambiguity.

From Cannes in May through the current Oscar season, Miramax prexy Daniel Battsek and producer Scott Rudin — ripe with wisdom from last year’s successful campaign for “The Queen” — let no detail go overlooked in keeping “No Country” alive and kicking. (At one time partner Paramount Vantage was going to handle the “No Country” domestic release, but Rudin moved it over to Miramax when it became clear that Vantage’s fall plate was full with “Into the Wild” and his own “There Will Be Blood.” Vantage is releasing “Country” overseas.)

Rudin spent months of mornings at Miramax’s New York offices, attending to three trailers, five print campaigns and varied TV spots. He’s also been a surprise presence on the Hollywood promo circuit. “He’s been out here more in the last three months than in the past 10 years,” cracks one PR exec.

“Scott’s literal 24/7 attention to every aspect requires a matching 24/7,” says Battsek. “He keeps everyone at the top of their game.”

From the film’s inception, Rudin saw a magic alchemy between the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy and the cinematic sensibilities of Joel and Ethan Coen. Rudin made sure that no ad went out that didn’t promote that literary and cinematic pedigree.

Luckily the Coens delivered a movie that critics loved. They loved it in Cannes, where it got a prestigious launch, even if the Coens didn’t add a third prize to their collection. They loved it at the Toronto and New York fests.

And after “No Country” opened Nov. 9 in 28 theaters to rave reviews, year-end critics’ groups kept voting for the picture. Like last year’s best picture Oscar winner, Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” it helped that “No Country” was not only a quality film for adults but an R-rated action thriller for young males.

The movie lasted in the marketplace and became a must-see because it was more than a conventional genre movie. It was an unsettling reminder that no matter how safe we may feel, shit does happen.

When many moviegoers objected to the film’s ending, Miramax marketers and the PR team at 42 West faced the challenge head-on, building the debate into an ongoing Internet dialogue. They invited blogger-critics like AICN’s Harry Knowles and Premiere.com’s Glenn Kenny to participate in an online podcast moderated by film writer Elvis Mitchell — and then promoted it on the film’s website.

“We went right for it,” says Rudin. “My instinct with stuff like this is to not dance around it. We had to initiate people into what the experience was. I feel strongly that the audience for this kind of movie does not like to be fooled.”

Still, the “No Country” marketing campaign tried to balance the Coens’ core of sophisticated film fans against a broader audience, the film’s high culture against its crowd-pleasing genre elements.

Miramax designed quote ads that stressed that the movie was a crime thriller ripped from contemporary headlines.

They ran an aggressive online marketing campaign aimed at the fanboys, including a violent redband trailer. “That helped to build up a tremendous amount of want-to-see,” says Battsek. “We wanted to make sure that the wider audience was not scared off by an intellectual exercise.”

The movie started out skewing more male, and expanded out to more men and women, young and old.

By the time the third trailer hit, “we felt we could be braver in the way we portrayed the film,” says Battsek. “We tried to keep the campaign fresh at all times, and not let people feel like they’d seen this or that before.”

The movie’s bookings expanded and contracted and expanded again. Some weeks there were no TV ads, just print. By Thanksgiving, “No Country” had grossed $18 million. Miramax pulled it back again, and then expanded during the Christmas holiday, when it earned another $10 million.

While Battsek is unwilling to confirm the total cost of the “No Country” P&A, rivals estimate that Miramax spent as much as $15 million.

It’s paying off.

The film is now in full-tilt awards-season expansion as it reached 1,300 theaters Feb. 1.

And Battsek plans to keep adding, he says, “so long as we keep that momentum going as we go on through to the Oscars themselves. What I’ve learned from Harvey is just sheer energy and a never-say-die attitude.”

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