It came into the film world christened a critic's darling, flush with descriptions like a "riveting revelation of fresh filmmaking talent." It was the toast of Sundance and Cannes. Several specialized distributors were knocking down the door, desperately seeking to buy this newcomer that was creating such a buzz among the festival crowds. There was even talk of its star, Michelle Rodriguez, turning in an Oscar-worthy performance.
Such was the auspicious beginning for first-time director Karyn Kusama's drama "Girlfight." The film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year, tied for the Grand Jury Prize with Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me." While "You Can Count on Me" went on to become an art-house hit and score critics' prizes and major nominations, including two for the Oscars, "Girlfight" dropped off the radar.
How could a film burn so brightly, then flicker away without a trace?
The experience has wounded not only the director, but the producers and even the studio, Sony Screen Gems, which gambled that this small, gritty independent film could strike a nerve with American youngsters.
The problem was that "Girlfight," an urban drama about an angry young Puerto Rican girl searching to find a better life through boxing, never found an audience. Neither the art-house crowd nor urban youngsters came to see it. The film's failure underscores the difficulty for small movies to make it big at the box office in today's hyper-competitive market. But it has also highlighted the challenges of finding that elusive urban-youth market.
"My friends were drooling over the [marketing and publicity] campaign for this movie," said Maggie Renzi, one of the film's producers, who is a partner in John Sayles' company, Anarchists' Convention. "I mean, here was all this ink--Michelle was everywhere. It was the kind of exposure that you beg for. . . . Listen, when you bake a cake and don't put in the baking powder you cannot be surprised that it did not raise. A movie is not like that--sometimes you do everything right and sometimes people just don't go to the movie."
But Kusama and producer Martha Griffin maintain that the film, which cost $1 million and made $1.5 million, was not helped by the studio's marketing campaign. They say the studio backed away from selling the movie for what it was--a coming-of-age story about a misunderstood and bitter young woman.
"They were afraid of using stronger images," said Griffin. "They lost the art-house audience and they never got the mall audience because they didn't keep the edge."
Part of the "edge" was Rodriguez's electric performance. Despite the 22-year-old New York native's lack of experience (this was her debut) top critics compared her stirring anger and sullen pride to Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront," and Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull."
The marketing campaign, which cost Sony Screen Gems close to $5 million, never focused on Rodriguez's fierceness, argued Kusama. The posters advertising the film, they said, never truly explained the theme of the film. Instead, they were watered-down versions of the film, and Rodriguez was never really used to sell the picture, said Kusama.
The posters used an outline of a woman in shorts wearing boxing gloves, but the viewer never got a glimpse of Rodriguez's face. Instead, said Kusama, they attempted to make the film out to be a love story. In one marketing ploy, women in gym shorts and tight shirts handed out fliers about the film outside offices on Madison Avenue in New York, said Kusama.
"I think it's a sort of everyman story in a spirit of filmmaking that perhaps now isn't as popular," said Kusama. "It is a story about real people and about owning and facing one's aggression. It was unslick and meant to be unslick. It's rough, it's low budget, it's angry. Everything that was special about the film was lost. I felt that the studio thought it was too risky to show that part of the film and then it neutralized it."
In addition, the studio did not aggressively pursue the Spanish-language market--an obvious audience considering the film's protagonists are Puerto Rican, according to Griffin.
"I think there are very few people who know how to tap into the Spanish market," said Griffin. "It's ironic, I mean, this is one of the largest populations and people don't know how to tap into that? It's amazing to me."
But the studio counters that Rodriguez was profiled in several Spanish-language newspapers and bilingual magazines such as Latina, to publicize the film that opened the Latino Film Festival in New York. They bought Spanish-language television ads and hired Maracas Entertainment to handle the Spanish-language campaign.