Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones star in "Like Crazy." (Fred Hayes, Paramount Pictures )
When it comes to making and releasing summer blockbusters such as "Transformers" or horror sequels like "Paranormal Activity 3," Paramount Pictures is right at home. But this January at the Sundance Film Festival, its executives sparked to a film way outside the studio's wheelhouse: a low-budget, largely improvised love story called "Like Crazy" without any big-name actors involved.
The studio grabbed the movie, which stars Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, after an all-night bidding war in a Utah condominium, beating out Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Summit Entertainment and the Weinstein Co. Yet that was only half the battle. The real challenge comes this weekend: how to market this unconventional picture from a young, virtually unknown director, a film whose ambition is hard to capture in a television spot or preview trailer?
Even as the fall movie season grows increasingly crowded, Paramount believes the PG-13 film will appeal to two distinct constituencies whose paths rarely cross: young adults looking for a relatable romance, and older ticket buyers motivated by nostalgia of early love, strong reviews and buzz from the film festival circuit. (Since Sundance, "Like Crazy" has played at more than 15 festivals).
"It has a real stickiness with that twentysomething crowd," said Megan Colligan, Paramount's president of domestic marketing and distribution. "But it also appeals to that older, more sophisticated art-house crowd."
In its Los Angeles debut this coming weekend, Paramount has booked the film into the ArcLight Hollywood, which attracts a broad but mostly younger audience, and the Landmark in West Los Angeles, a primarily art-house venue with more mature patrons. The film is also opening in New York this weekend; Paramount plans to slowly expand the film to other cities in the coming weeks.
Shot for about $250,000, "Like Crazy" follows the trans-Atlantic love affair between a Los Angeles furniture designer named Jacob ("Star Trek's" Yelchin) and the London-based journalist Anna ("The Tempest's" Jones). Partnering with independent producer Indian Paintbrush, Paramount bought the film's worldwide rights for about $4 million.
Given that sales price and the cost of releasing the film theatrically, "Like Crazy" will need to gross more than $10 million to manage a profit. Some recent comparable films have come close to, and a few have exceeded, that yardstick. The 2007 romance "Once" grossed $9.4 million in domestic release, 2009's "(500) Days of Summer" sold $32.4 million in tickets, while last year's "Blue Valentine" grossed $9.7 million. But Doremus' last film, the Sundance alumnus "Douchebag," took in just $20,000 last year.
To maximize its potential returns, Paramount is pursuing two separate paths to launch the film, a not insignificant trick. "When you have two audiences you're going after, it takes a lot more work," Colligan said. In addition to buying advertising targeting two different demographics, Paramount also has put the "Like Crazy" trailer on markedly different films: "The Help" and "Footloose."
Ever since "Like Crazy" played at the Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September, Yelchin, Jones and Doremus have been crisscrossing the country, primarily focusing on more than a dozen college towns such as Austin, Texas; Boston and Philadelphia. "We've been pimping ourselves all over the place. Pimping the film, I should say," Yelchin said.
Even though it focuses on a young couple, early positive reviews have identified part of the film's broader appeal: People a generation older may see part of their own lives, that agonizing exhilaration of first love, reflected on screen.
Jones said the film can be relatable if "you've been through a relationship and you're looking back and you're nostalgic about past relationships — or you recognize it because you're still in it."
Although Paramount is best known for releasing popcorn movies, its marketing staff has worked on smaller, more special-handling movies such as "Waiting for 'Superman'" and the first "Paranormal Activity."
"I think the great thing about the team is they couldn't be more capable of supporting any kind of movie, and I think that 'Like Crazy' represents that," said Rob Moore, the studio's vice chairman. "We don't act like a big studio a lot of the time. … Our organization has shown it can handle every movie from every genre."
"Like Crazy" faces obstacles both organic and not of its own making.
Younger moviegoers may be thrown by the film's patient, often silent storytelling, while older audiences may have trouble relating to characters half their age. The film's ambiguous ending may spark as many passionate theater-lobby conversations as frustrated dismissals.
While the release calendar is not larded with many promising romances — we're not putting "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1" in that category — there are any number of features on the horizon aimed at highbrow patrons, including "The Descendants," "The Artist," "Shame," "Carnage" and Paramount's own "Young Adult."
Unlike most Paramount films, the ultimate "Like Crazy" returns won't be known after this weekend or, in all likelihood, after a month. "We will actively and aggressively be working on this movie," Colligan said, "for the next six weeks."