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‘Oogieloves’ a self-distribution adventure

Investment is a long-term bet in ancillary revenue

Interactive kid romp “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure,” launching today at more than 2,000 U.S. locations, is the most ambitious self-distributed family film ever to hit plexes. Looking only at modest pre-weekend tracking of $5 million-$6 million, the $55 million production and marketing investment from producer Kenn Viselman and backers might look like a candy-colored albatross.

But given the high upside for franchise and downstream prospects, the large-scale investment is more of a long-term bet. Viselman, a marketing exec on “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends” and a producing partner on “Teletubbies,” is counting on more than just a few weeks at the box office.

Family film B.O. is difficult enough to predict. Prospects for “Oogieloves” add another level of complexity: “Nobody tracks 3- to 7-year-olds,” Viselman said.

“Part of the process is really having to explain to theaters the tracking numbers,” Viselman said. “It is a leap of faith for them (to believe) that I really am spending the money that I am.”

Studios initially showed “mild interest” in his creation, Viselman said, but demanded distrib fees that were just too high. So at a time when Hollywood is uniformly cowering at risk, the family-market guru chose to independently market and distribute “Oogieloves” via his Kenn Viselman presents banner.

He hired Orion Pictures veteran Robert Schwartz to spearhead distribution, which included a service agreement with Freestyle Releasing. The team brokered individual playdates directly with exhibitors by selling “Oogieloves” as the first installment in a long-term franchise.

Viselman also brought on marketing firm Pulse for the film’s $40 million campaign, which included an eight-figure TV buy that started Aug. 22 — considered a very late start. Viselman stressed that “kids don’t decide which movie to see weeks in advance. They’re impulsive,” he explained.

“Oogieloves” is a live-action pic that incorporates on-screen cues, encouraging tots to sing and dance in the aisles. Filmmakers concocted devices to instruct kids who aren’t yet able to read.

In an attempt to attract parents (and the growing number of word-spreading mommy bloggers, specifically), Viselman and his team created a Twitter campaign — hashtag #RatedGGG — meant to build localized buzz for the film. The movie’s Twitter handle, @TheOogieloves, has more than half-a-million followers — an enormous number even for a major studio film, though a good portion of those are self-described “brand ambassadors,” mostly moms who tweet and re-tweet links to giveaways, coupons and other deals in exchange for free stuff and are sometimes paid to attend or write about promotional events.

The film’s outdoor campaign and in-theater marketing materials went up weeks ago to take advantage of heavier summer theater traffic. But Viselman said he always was determined to release the film over Labor Day.

Pic’s midweek launch should draw in the tiniest preschoolers and older kids still on summer vacation leading into the holiday weekend, and many theaters across the country are hosting an “Oogieloves”-themed day this weekend.

The only other competition for families this weekend is Focus Features’ “ParaNorman” — and that pic, entering its third frame, now may be attracting more adult auds who shy away from opening weekends.

“I believe that while everyone is looking at the tracking, all I’m interested in are the children and their caregivers,” Viselman said. “If you’re a mother and don’t know about my movie, then I’ve really screwed up.”

Though theatrical grosses are important predictors of downstream success, family films often see outsized returns from homevid, especially ones, like “Oogieloves,” targeted towards younger kids who watch more at home than in theaters. BBAM — a split ownership between creatives and investors — has rights to the “Oogieloves” property, and Viselman said he currently is weighing several options for downstream deals.

Regardless of the film’s financial prospects, Viselman said he plans to move forward with second and third installments. In fact, there’s a late-October start date for production on the sequel.

“This movie was never about the box office,” Viselman said. “It’s always been about introducing kids and families to the Oogieloves characters.”

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