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Nursing It Into A Hit

The studio was surprised at 'Juno's' warm reception and now it's on the road to building momentum.

December 19, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

FOX SEARCHLIGHT always believed "Juno" held great promise for teenage moviegoers. But it was not until the movie was unveiled at the Telluride Film Festival early in the fall that the company started to believe its film could appeal to Oscar voters too.

Unlike some movies -- "Atonement" and "The Kite Runner" come to mind -- that seem groomed for Academy Award consideration from the get-go, "Juno" is one whose critical esteem appears to have surprised even its own makers. Fox Searchlight wasn't even initially planning on releasing the movie this year, designing instead a spring 2008 debut.

But like the indomitable teen mother at its center, "Juno" couldn't be stopped. And with awards voters (not to mention moviegoers) beaten down by the violence and despair of "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," "The Savages," "Sweeney Todd" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," "Juno" is that rare fall movie that actually leaves you not wanting to stick your head in an oven when it's over.

The challenge for Fox Searchlight is converting those warm and fuzzy feelings into best picture votes. The studio was up to the test a year ago with "Little Miss Sunshine," and "Juno" is now building the same kind of momentum -- although "Juno" holds some challenges not shared by "Little Miss Sunshine."

Almost everywhere "Juno" goes, it returns home with some sort of accolade: the audience award at the Austin Film Festival; best film at the Rome Film Festival; the young jury prize at Spain's Gijon Film Festival; and prominent recognition at festivals in Palm Springs, St. Louis and Los Angeles.

Reviews for the movie, which opened in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 5, have been uniformly glowing, with special shout-outs for star Ellen Page and first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody. "Juno" received three Golden Globe nominations -- including for best comedy or musical -- from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. on Thursday, and collected four nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards.

But it was its September debut in Telluride that set "Juno" in motion. While the Labor Day weekend festival is neither as heavily attended as the Toronto International Film Festival nor does it equal the media and acquisitions spectacle of Sundance, Telluride has become a key launch point for Oscar challengers. In the last few years, "Capote," "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Last King of Scotland" all premiered in the Colorado mountain resort.

"The press started writing about the movie right out of Telluride as a possible contender," says Nancy Utley, Fox Searchlight's chief operating officer.

But Fox Searchlight wasn't solely focused on the film's awards chances. Its first priority was releasing the movie theatrically. And it was there that the studio first began to borrow from the "Little Miss Sunshine" playbook.

Like "Little Miss Sunshine," "Juno" is a movie that defies easy categorization. While the first film is about a beauty pageant for young girls and the second focuses on teenage pregnancy, even the best-written plot summary doesn't do either movie justice. So just as it had with "Sunshine," Fox Searchlight started showing "Juno" everywhere to let the movie become its own best advertising.

In more than 60 cities, the company organized some 300 screenings, and sent Page, Cody and director Jason Reitman on an 11-city promotional tour. In Los Angeles, Fox Searchlight dispatched a truck filled with a re-creation of Juno's bedroom to cruise city streets, and organized runners costumed like Michael Cera's character (a high school track athlete) to roam high-traffic neighborhoods, including Universal CityWalk.

While those tactics may have reached teens, adult moviegoers (which, naturally, includes awards voters) remained harder to reel in. Part of the problem is the film's cast. While "Sunshine" starred actors that many older moviegoers knew and respected (Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin), "Juno" had at its center two young stars -- Page and Michael Cera -- who remain largely unknown to people older than 30.

"Part of the marketing challenge is the older audience," Utley says, "which may not think it's for them right off the bat."

The national screening campaign, though, had underscored one of "Juno's" hidden strengths: While it's ostensibly a teen comedy, there's also a tender -- and affecting -- story at its core about families and growing up. "People were surprised by the amount of heart," says Lianne Halfon, one of "Juno's" producers.

Still, there were other obstacles to overcome. Even though "Little Miss Sunshine" had shattered the perception that a comedy -- especially an offbeat work -- couldn't be in the best picture race, "Juno" still felt too young to some people, not weighty enough.

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