Remember The Visiting, the $50 million sci-fi movie starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig that shot here for several months two years ago? Today it opens nationwide under its original title, The Invasion. And do you still recall Rocket Science, the $6 million high school comedy that filmed here right before The Invasion and closed the Maryland Film Festival in May? It opens a week from today, on a tide of positive reviews from New York and Los Angeles.
Entertainment-page readers know that for financial and publicity reasons, big studios such as Warner Bros. often rush the completion of movies to make a release date. So movie fans have come to recognize that a slow arrival for a genre film such as The Invasion signals a troubled production. And that's the case with this fourth version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which went through additional rewrites and shooting more than a year after it wrapped in Baltimore. Not surprisingly, no one from the production or from Warner Bros. would comment on the delay.
There's a happier story behind Rocket Science, the first dramatic feature from Jeffrey Blitz, director of the beloved spelling-bee documentary Spellbound. Even though it shot here even earlier than The Invasion, its dawdling return to town is part of a strategy common to independent pictures. Bob Berney, the president of Picturehouse, the film's distribution company, said in a phone interview Wednesday that it came down to a hope that many an individualistic American movie shares: that into its fragile life a little ray of Sundance could fall.
Berney says movies such as Rocket Science depend on a media launch at a national festival such as Sundance, "a focused place to be in the spotlight, where you can win early reviews to get attention." Berney could have chosen Toronto during the previous fall, but the karma seemed right for Rocket Science at Sundance. "We just felt Sundance would be the place to go; it's a subjective call. It's true you can get lost in Toronto, especially if you're an American independent and not a more international movie, but the same thing can happen to you at Sundance. You have to find your spot at Sundance, or anywhere. And sometimes it's like superstition; you just feel lucky there, and it may have nothing to do with reality."
Also, Sundance had rejected Blitz's Spellbound. When it went over like gangbusters at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, shortly thereafter, and then across the country, everyone wondered what the Sundance programmers could have been smoking when they turned it down. Berney says "part of" the equation was that Sundance would think twice before passing on a Jeffrey Blitz film ever again. The tale of his return in triumph was sure to garner news coverage.
The immediate roadblock was timing. "Jeffrey and his team really didn't have it through post-production in time for Sundance a year ago," says Berney. So they made a decision to tweak the film into its best possible state and then wait. They held off on any ambitious advance-screening program. "This is not the kind of film you do a lot of testing with. It's a personal film, a director's film, and these are resistant to standard testing."
But Berney had a few smart things to do in the meantime. For example, he hired renowned book-cover designer Chip Kidd, called by USA Today "the closest thing to a rock star" in the field of graphic design, to come up with a signature image that could brand the movie before Sundance. Kidd produced a poster of chattering teeth that fit Blitz's comic take on his film's hero, a stutterer who joins the high school debate team. "We got some viral play out of that."
And, Berney said, "we did teaser trailers and put together a publicity team. We arranged advance interviews and photo ops for the kids in the movie, putting out the word to the press that they would discover new actors [such as the film's youthful lead Reece Daniel Thompson]. You do that kind of work before you screen the film, and when you do the press notes you determine how to position the movie within those notes. The message became, 'If you really liked Spellbound, this is the first fiction film from the guy who did Spellbound - and you'll also discover these new actors.'"
According to Berney, Sundance delivered just the response this movie needed. "It got a very strong reaction from both critics and exhibitors and Jeffrey won a best directing prize." Berney says it takes four to six months from the end of the festival to get it into commercial theaters. "You need that time to build the campaign and make your plan. So that usually dictates a late summer release. The earliest you can get it out is late spring - March or April. But that's only if you have all your materials ready to go. We like to see the first reactions and develop a campaign from that."
With movies like Rocket Science, critics and festival audiences come into play. "To some extent, you need the critics to inform you through their reviews what the overall tone of the film has come to be," Berney says. "With Rocket Science, we got a lot of comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite and Election. And the reaction of the crowds feeds the media, the theater owners" and the potential public for the movie.
In the space between Sundance and the commercial opening, says Berney, "regional film festivals become important, especially if we can roll the movie out after its festival showing. When you bring in talent, it opens up more editorial space in the papers and becomes a word-of-mouth event." (With the Baltimore connection and "the quality of the festival," presenting it as the closing-night attraction at the Maryland Film Festival was "a no-brainer," he says.)
Audience buzz has been crucial for the theatrical well-being of movies the size of Rocket Science. "We opened in four cities last week and now we're building," Berney says. "We want to stretch things out so that we're taking advantage of the word of mouth. The advantage of going out that way is that you're not fighting for all the screens on any given week, and you can find exhibitors at even the biggest commercial theaters who will allocate screens for a film like this because they know an audience wants it. It's worked this summer for La Vie En Rose, Once and Waitress. We think audiences are ready for a fresh film in that area."