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Summer turns serious

The season has traditionally been unreceptive to heavy fare, but the makers of the post-9/11 drama `A Mighty Heart' are betting they'll find an audience.

June 15, 2007|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

Adult moviegoers may be craving a serious drama after overdosing on a steady diet of mindless sequels that has driven this year's box-office sales.

But whether they'll rush out to see a sobering, ripped-from-the-headlines story set in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks remains an open question for the distributor of next Friday's release "A Mighty Heart."

Paramount Vantage is taking a risk releasing its emotionally charged movie about slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl just as audiences are poised for another round of escapist fare that includes "Transformers" and sequels to "Fantastic Four" and "Die Hard."

People haven't exactly lined up for films with themes related to 9/11. They gave cool receptions to last year's "United 93" and "Reign Over Me," about a man devastated by the loss of his family in the attacks. "World Trade Center," released last summer by Vantage's big-sister studio, Paramount Pictures, fared better but was not a runaway hit.

"Serious movies in the summer can be problematic," said Jeff Blake, head of worldwide marketing and distribution for Sony Pictures, which has "Spider-Man 3" in theaters. "People do seem to be in the mood for something lighter."

Unlike "Spider-Man," which cost nearly $300 million to produce, "A Mighty Heart" doesn't have to be a blockbuster to turn a profit. It was made for just $16 million.

Executives at Paramount Vantage, the specialty label of the Melrose Avenue studio, are hoping the movie will be the perfect antidote to the fluff in the marketplace, banking on the counterprogramming strategy of serving up sophisticated fare to upscale, adult audiences when they are starved for something meaty.

"There are a lot of fast-food blockbusters out there and this is a powerful story," Vantage President John Lesher said. "Our hope is that this is the first Oscar movie of the year."

Typically, studios release what they consider their most promising Oscar contenders in the fall, when audiences are more receptive to sophisticated films. But "A Mighty Heart" could have been lost amid an onslaught of serious dramas this fall that include Vantage's highly anticipated release "The Kite Runner," based on the bestselling novel.

"There's an advantage to being ahead of the pack," said Lesher, who successfully bucked convention last year by releasing Al Gore's global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" over the Memorial Day weekend.

Another counterprogramming triumph was the 2005 summer drama "Crash," which won the Oscar for best picture.

However, sometimes the strategy doesn't work. That same summer, moviegoers largely overlooked "Cinderella Man," which many considered a downer, and flocked to "Madagascar" and the latest "Star Wars" installment

"We're cautiously optimistic about the idea of going in the summer," Lesher said.

Lesher and his co-president, Nick Meyer, said they also wanted to capitalize on the strong buzz and reviews that the film and its star, Angelina Jolie, got at last month's Cannes International Film Festival.

There has already been talk in Hollywood about a likely Oscar nomination for Jolie's riveting portrayal of widow Mariane Pearl, the movie's central character.

The film, directed by Michael Winterbottom and featuring Dan Futterman as Daniel Pearl, is based on Mariane Pearl's memoir about the kidnapping and frantic, five-week search for her husband, who was abducted and murdered in January 2002 by extremists in Karachi, Pakistan, while chasing a story that linked foiled shoe bomber Richard Reid to Al Qaeda.

Despite the story's post-Sept. 11 backdrop and a photo of the burning Twin Towers on the film's website, Lesher insists that the movie is about Mariane Pearl's strength and courage in dealing with the pain without "going to a place of hate."

"I would not define it as a '9/11 movie,' " he said.

The story is told from the point of view of Mariane Pearl, herself a journalist, who was six months pregnant when she and an international cadre of friends, investigators and others, housed under the same roof in Karachi, united to search for her husband.

"This horrific event that was meant to destroy and separate people proved quite the opposite," said Brad Pitt, whose passion for the project as its producer made the movie happen. "The quest for Danny brought together Muslims, a Jew, a Buddhist and Christians." Pitt, who is Jolie's boyfriend, also noted that the production itself was similar in that it had an international cast and crew.

It was Mariane Pearl's depth of character that inspired Pitt to aggressively pursue the movie rights to her 2003 memoir, "A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl." He was moved by having seen her first interview with CNN when the search for her husband was underway.

"There was something about her strength," Pitt said. "She was a fighter and was not cut down by this."

Another theme that Pitt said "rang loudly" for him was the Pearls' commitment to "good journalism and an unbiased telling of the facts."

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