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‘Earth to Echo’: Shrewd Counter-Programming or Sacrificial Lamb?

Earth to Echo,” a family-friendly adventure about an adorable alien, is trying to avoid being crushed by the robot hordes from “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” when it premieres before the July 4th holiday.

After all, the film is a low-budget affair that is being launched in the height of tentpole season. Rather than being a sacrificial lamb, Relativity Studios, which picked up the $13 million film from Walt Disney Studios last July, maintains that “Earth to Echo” represents a shrewd piece of counter-programming.

“‘Transformers is going to be enormous, but we also feel like there’s an opportunity for family fare that skews a little younger,” said Tucker Tooley, president of Relativity Media. “Your entire audience is available right now, and you have a much broader canvas during the summer. Hopefully we can carve out a little slice.”

The studio is trying to take advantage of a relative lack of family titles. Last year, going into the holiday weekend, there were roughly a half dozen films pitched at families. This year, there are only two other pictures aimed at that demographic, “Maleficent” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

Tooley said the picture, which borrows the “Blair Witch Project’s” found-footage aesthetic to tell the story of a group of childhood friends who discover an alien, reminded him of the type of live-action film that Hollywood rarely makes anymore.

“It harkens back to the movies we grew up on,” Tooley said. “Movies like ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Stand by Me,’ but it does it in a language that feels contemporary.”

Analysts predict the film will debut modestly and will make in the neighborhood of $18 million to $20 million for the five day period when it premieres, a reasonable figure considering its low cost. It could see those numbers rise, however, because “Transformers: Age of Extinction” will be in its second week in theaters and the other new wide-releases, “Tammy” and “Deliver Us From Evil,” target older audiences.

“It’s in a small niche, but it’s in a good one,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “It could benefit from what is shaping up to be a weak Fourth.”

Central to the studio’s hopes of profitability is keeping a watchful eye on costs. The studio has cooked up a grassroots marketing campaign that has involved partnering with Scholastic on study guides about space exploration for junior high and elementary school students, working with non-profit Code.org to challenge students across the country to use code to design a game inspired by the film, and has arranged over 325 screenings since the beginning of April.

It’s also worked the social media angle, by pitching stories to blogs that cover issues of importance to mothers and becoming only the second movie after “Maleficent” to advertise on Instagram. The company also banked on outdoor advertising, much of it in the form of digital billboards, allowing it the flexibility to make alterations to its campaign on the fly.

“The great challenge and what’s actually very exciting for the company is to figure out how we build awareness and get noticed without over-spending,” said Russell Schwartz, Relativity’s president of theatrical marketing.

“We realized that the best way to promote the movie was based on the word of mouth,” he added.

The economical approach inspired Schwartz and his team to reach across the company and to enlist athletes such as Shawn Marion and Ricky Rubio who are represented by Relativity’s sports agency arm. The basketball stars filmed an in-theater promotion that finds them scrambling to try to catch a showing of “Earth to Echo.”

Relativity has bought television time as well, but it has focused its spending on cable channels such as Nickelodeon that cater to younger crowds and broadcast programs such as the morning shows that are targeted at mothers.

“We’re not living and dying on the television spot,” Schwartz said. “We’re finding other things that are making the movie stand out.”

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