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Word of Mouth: 'The First Grader' seeks Oscar attention

Producers of 'The First Grader' believe their film is Oscar worthy. So they are mounting a grass-roots campaign. 'It's a bit David and Goliath,' one admits.

November 10, 2011|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • Oliver Litondo stars in "The First Grader."
Oliver Litondo stars in "The First Grader." (National Geographic Entertainment )

The story of "The First Grader" is a classic underdog tale: an 84-year-old Kenyan man fights to be educated, even if that means attending an elementary school. Now the film's producers are launching their own against-all-odds effort, trying to bring the movie to the attention of Oscar voters with little help from its distributor.

After its premiere at last year's Telluride Film Festival, the independently financed feature was acquired by National Geographic Entertainment, a relatively new player in the theatrical world. "The First Grader," which was inspired by a story in the Los Angeles Times, was a runner-up to "The King's Speech" for the important audience award at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival and won audience awards at several smaller festivals. Yet even if moviegoers responded to the film, critics were less kind. After its debut in limited release this May, "The First Grader" grossed just $332,000, never playing in more than three dozen theaters at one time.

Producers Richard Harding and Sam Feuer, whose Sixth Sense Productions raised the film's $4.25-million budget from private investors, BBC Films and the UK Film Council, were more than a little disappointed in National Geographic's work. They said the company promised a broad "First Grader" campaign that would include its flagship magazine, the National Geographic cable television channel and online and radio promotions, but that little if any advertising materialized. To help drive ticket sales, costar Naomie Harris ("28 Days Later") at one point handed out fliers in New York's Central Park.

"Nobody knew about our film when it came out," Harding said. "It was extremely frustrating." Said Feuer: "They pigeonholed our movie as an art house film when it's not an art house film. It's a people's film. Everybody who comes out of our film loves it."

Directed by Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") and written by Ann Peacock ("The Chronicles of Narnia"), the movie follows a 2002 decision by Kenya promising free education to all. An illiterate tribesman named Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo) takes the government up on its offer, and when he shows up in a classroom overflowing with too many 6-year-olds, a kindly school principal (Harris) tries to accommodate him while fighting off her administrators.

If "The First Grader" was quickly forgotten at the multiplex, Harding and Feuer wanted to make sure it was remembered when awards voters started filling out their ballots. With National Geographic unwilling to pay for an awards push — "We have to look to see if there's a justification both financially and otherwise in mounting a campaign," said Daniel Battsek, the president of National Geographic Films — Harding and Feuer decided to undertake the effort themselves.

"They do not believe our film has any chance just to be nominated," Harding said. But he and his partner think "The First Grader" should be considered for best picture, soundtrack, song, cinematography, supporting actor (for Litondo) and actress (for Harris).

Modern awards campaigns can cost millions of dollars, including numerous screenings, countless "for your consideration" advertisements and thousands of DVD screeners. With a number of deep-pocketed studios in the race — Warner Bros. has "J. Edgar," Fox Searchlight "The Descendants," Disney "War Horse" — making just a ripple in the Oscar pond this year won't be easy, or cheap.

"It's a bit David and Goliath, but in every year, there's one outside film that gets noticed," said David M. Thompson, another producer on the film. "The fact that it keeps winning audience awards is really interesting. It's not a matter of opinion, it's a matter of fact: It works very well with audiences." On Monday, "The First Grader" was shortlisted for the Gotham Independent Film Audience Award.

This week, Harding and Feuer will send out about 15,000 "First Grader" DVDs to voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. (who hand out the Golden Globes) and the Screen Actors Guild. "There's about a dozen awards organizations we are going after," Harding said. In addition to the DVDs, the producers are considering billboards, trade newspaper advertisements and even giant cardboard "First Grader" cutouts that they plan to prop up near theaters hosting awards screenings for other movies. The campaign will cost less than $100,000, the producers said.

While Harding and Feuer are putting some of their own money into the campaign, they also are benefiting from a new organization, called the Shea Family Foundation, aimed at encouraging positive depictions of family values in entertainment.

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