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Disney Draws on 'Passion' to Promote 'Heart & Soul'

The studio is emulating Mel Gibson's tactic of screening an upcoming film to targeted groups.

June 12, 2004|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

When Hollywood summons influential tastemakers to early movie screenings, agricultural organizations usually are not on the list. But early last month, leaders of FFA, formerly known as Future Farmers of America, were invited to an Indianapolis multiplex for a peek at one of this summer's documentaries, "America's Heart & Soul."

By the time the film opens in about 40 cities July 2, the FFA says, it will have employed its website, e-mail tree and journal to recommend "America's Heart & Soul" to its 460,000 members. Says Anna Melodia, who directs the organization's education division: "What we are looking to do is help spread the word."

Almost every studio summer movie is backed by paparazzo-attracting stars, $50-million advertising campaigns, fast-food tie-ins and action figures.

"America's Heart & Soul," a movie chronicling the accomplishments of 26 U.S. citizens both ordinary and remarkable, from Cajun musicians to a blind mountain climber, enjoys none of that high-octane promotion.

Disney is instead selling its film through extensive word-of-mouth screenings, concentrating its efforts on the parts of the country most Hollywood executives see only from the windows of their Gulfstream jets. It's a strategy long on labor and short on resources, patterned on the campaign behind Mel Gibson's blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ."

Although "America's Heart & Soul" isn't about religion, the studio frequently called Gibson's team for pointers on the film's sales strategy. And as with "The Passion," studio executives knew the film's success would hinge on connecting with those who don't habitually queue up for the latest Tom Cruise blockbuster.

Instead of buying pricey commercials in the middle of a Laker game, Disney will spend a meager $400,000 on print advertisements. While some movies blanket the nation with promotional billboards, the studio will cover the country with free "America's Heart & Soul" preview screenings to groups as varied as klezmer musicians and horse wranglers. And mirroring "The Passion's" release strategy, the filmmakers are courting scores of faith-based organizations.

"It was a hugely successful model," Dick Cook, Disney's studio chief, says of "The Passion" release plan, which included about 50 screenings for conservative religious leaders in the weeks preceding the drama's February release.

So far, Gibson's $25-million movie has grossed more than $370 million, in part a testament to its novel personal pitch to evangelical Christians.

Controversy also contributed to "The Passion's" success, generating significant media attention and public debate over the film's alleged anti-Semitism.

Currently, Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," a vitriolic political documentary set to be in theaters later this month, is benefiting from a headline-grabbing firestorm that can help elevate a film above the summer blockbuster fray.

Disney isn't courting controversy -- it dumped "Fahrenheit 9/11" because of its content -- but it certainly could use the bottom-line benefit a small flap can produce.

To draw attention to the documentary the studio does want you to see, Disney estimates that it has held nearly 500 domestic screenings since January, some for audiences of no more than five, all to get people across the nation to start talking about it and, in turn, stimulate interest and ticket sales.

"It's not as if anyone is reinventing the wheel. It's going back to doing things the way we used to, before everyone fell in love with a TV spot on 'Friends,' " Cook says. "This is the way we used to release movies. We worked."

Cinematographer Louis Schwartzberg's portrait-filled movie, something of a Studs Terkel book on film, touches on so many lifestyles that this week alone, the studio screened "America's Heart & Soul" to members of the Sierra Club and the International Federation of Bike Messengers in San Francisco, and to members of AARP, the American Legion and the American Assn. of People With Disabilities in Washington, D.C.

In addition to its negligible marketing costs, Disney has invested $1 million in "America's Heart & Soul." Although the upside for profits might be limited, it's certainly a safer investment than the studio's recent $100-million flop, "The Alamo."

No one at Disney is expecting a fraction of the returns generated by a typical summer blockbuster, and the studio says it will be gratified if "America's Heart & Soul" grosses more than $10 million, what each of the three stars of "Shrek" earned for the current sequel.

There is precedent for success: The distributors of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" promoted their film through scores of word-of-mouth screenings to interested parties; the film grossed more than $241 million.

"My favorite book growing up was 'The Little Engine That Could,' and this is our own 'Little Engine That Could,' " says Lylle Breier, a Disney senior vice president for special events who is spearheading the "America's Heart & Soul" screening campaign.

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