The little films that could

While Hollywood battles over blockbusters, indies vie for sleeper crown.

If Mark Urman has his way, this summer's sleeper-hit movie will be a docudrama about ... camels. A "dysfunctional family" of camels in Mongolia, to be precise.

Mr. Urman, whose company Thinkfilm is distributing "The Story of the Weeping Camel," believes their live-action movie will appeal to the audience that flocked to last year's breakout documentary hit, "Winged Migration."

"The film is utterly delightful, having all of the virtues and thematic resonances of a classic Disney animated feature like 'Bambi,' or 'Dumbo,' or 'The Lion King' in its emphasis on a child animal having some sort of maternal trauma and trying to make its way in the world," says Urman, calling from the Cannes Film Festival in France.

Selling a film with a protagonist that doesn't speak (but spits an awful lot) requires an innovative marketing strategy - and Thinkfilm believes it has one. The company has entered into a promotional partnership with National Geographic, because the magazine's 6 million subscribers are likely to be attracted to the film's Gobi Desert setting. If National Geographic's constituency embraces the June release, they could generate enough buzz to get this camel over the hump in a crowded movie season.

Increasingly, more independent movies are adopting similar models of grass-roots marketing. Unable to compete with the multimillion-dollar advertising budgets of studio blockbusters, small movies are instead targeting localized niche audiences as a way to gain traction. That platform allows a film to open small and then potentially build momentum through word of mouth, just as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" did two years ago by initially making a splash in the Greek-American community. That movie went on to become the most profitable romantic comedy in history.

"If you preach to the converted first, but then you get people talking, and then you get the mainstream media talking about you, you become a breakout hit," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, a Los Angeles company that tracks box office figures.

Last year, "Bend It Like Beckham" did just that. The hit comedy about girl soccer players courted a core audience by screening the film to teams of Mia Hamm wannabes. Word of the film's feel-good vibe soon spread beyond high-school sports fields and the film took in $34 million. Since then, others have tried to mimic that strategy.

Author John Grisham is personally distributing "Mickey," a $6 million baseball film he wrote, by targeting screenings at Little Leaguers and their families. Another current release, "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius," similarly reached out to the Professional Golf Association to promote the biopic about the amateur who ruled the fairways during the 1920s.

"Very often the philosophy is that if a film is for a specialized audience, then you should limit the exposure, because you're giving away tickets," says Urman, Thinkfilm's president of US distribution. "We believe that every person who sees the film prior to its opening ... can be a walking advertisement for the film."

Others are getting wise to the potential of targeting a specific ethnic group. "A Day Without a Mexican," which opened this past weekend, garnered strong support from the Hispanic community. The premise of the mockumentary is a novel one: California wakes up one morning to discover that every Hispanic in the state has simply vanished. But comic scenes of L.A. grappling with the disappearance of parking valets, dish washers, and a few of the Dodgers underline a serious message about the Latino contribution to America.

To market the movie, a series of billboards proclaimed "On May 14th There Will Be No Mexicans In California." Result: instant controversy. Bowing to pressure to remove one of the ads, the billboard company found itself all over the 6 o'clock news, generating the kind of publicity that reverberates from talk radio to op-ed columns. Latino TV stations, meanwhile, got behind the movie, even as 100,000 copies of a fake newspaper with stories about the missing were distributed to Hispanic schools, dry cleaners, and other outlets.

"To break through the clutter, you have to have a poignant message and you need to come up with something a little more shocking than [other films] because if not, you don't get noticed," says Rosio Prado Kissling, one of the owners of Latino World, which marketed "A Day Without a Mexican" to Hispanics.

The film, which opened on just 56 screens in southern California (as opposed to 3,411 for "Troy"), managed a stunning debut at No. 12 nationwide. In coming weeks "Mexican" will ripple out to screens across the country.

There was a time when even a movie such as "Star Wars" opened modestly and became a phenomenon only after a few weeks. In recent years, Hollywood largely has abandoned that model. Studios release their weapons of mass distraction on as many screens as possible to maximize returns before a competitor arrives next Friday.

But those "event" movies are aimed at a demographic that is more familiar with the voice of Mr. Moviefone than that of Bob Edwards. Independent films aimed at an older crowd, on the other hand, are risky because those viewers seldom rush out to see a movie the day it opens. If a low-budget flick is to have enough time to marinate and develop an audience, it's imperative that a core audience show up so that cinemas don't dump the film. And that doesn't always happen.

"Mickey" swung for the fences and missed, and "Bobby Jones" bogeyed. The marketing strategy is a gamble, says Mr. Dergarabedian. "Out of 400 movies a year, maybe 150 are from the majors and all the rest are small films. A lot of those are going to get hurt. They're not going to break out."

But, says "Bobby Jones" producer Rick Eldridge, the movie hasn't reached the 18th hole just yet. "We look at the theatrical [release] as really the way that we build an awareness and a market for the movie. Where we really make our money is going to be in the DVD."

The $16 million budget film had tried to lure a Christian audience by trumpeting its wholesome values and lead actor, Jim Caviezel of "The Passion of the Christ." Clearly, the success of "The Passion" has many filmmakers eyeing Christians as a potential core audience. Mel Gibson screened his film early to church groups and solicited support from religious leaders in a live teleconference broadcast. Soon, galvanized churches were buying whole blocks of tickets for the film, which has earned $368 million to date.

Excel films, a Utah-based company that produces family friendly movies with a moral message, believes their August World War II drama "Saints and Soldiers" could appeal to a "faith-based" audience. But Excel CEO Jeff Simpson stresses that the indie film doesn't have an overtly religious message and could have a broader appeal.

Thinkfilm, meanwhile, is marketing "Festival Express" to another fervent group: Deadheads. Clips of the film, about a festival featuring The Grateful Dead, the Band, and Janis Joplin that traveled across Canada by train in 1970, are being shown on video monitors at concerts for The Dead.

"That's what we have to do," says Urman. "The studios spend a lot of money. We do a lot of research. It's like electioneering. We go out, shake hands, we kiss babies, and every vote is $10 in the bank."

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