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'Seeking a Friend' seeks a national audience

June 21, 2012|By Amy Kaufman and John Horn
(Focus Features )

In many summer movies, some superhero prevents the world’s end. There’s no superhero in “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” and there’s nothing that can be done to avert Judgment Day.

Focus Features nevertheless believes its unusual, R-rated romantic comedy is perfect summer fare. In one of the season’s bolder scheduling moves, the studio will open “Seeking a Friend” in wide release this weekend opposite Pixar’s “Brave” and Fox’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

“I always think counter-programming is a really good idea, partly because you get kind of bored of the same genre of film over and over again,” said Keira Knightley, who stars in the $10-million film opposite Steve Carell. “I think it's kind of lovely to give the public more than just one option. But how it falls or how it does, I just don't know.”

“Seeking a Friend,” written and directed by first-time director Lorene Scafaria, stars Carell as Dodge, a down-in-the-dumps insurance salesman whose wife leaves him when it becomes inescapable that a giant asteroid will destroy the planet.  In his attempt to find a long-lost girlfriend before the disaster, Dodge connects with his neighbor, Penny (played by  Knightley), a free spirit  struggling to return to her family. The two set off on a road trip that brings them close not only to one another but also some extraordinary end-of-times events.

In some ways, Focus is copying its release pattern for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the quirky love story starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.  The Michel Gondry-directed film debuted in 2004 in about 1,300 theaters (roughly the same count as for “Seeking a Friend”) and grossed $8.2 million in its first weekend, and $34.4 million total domestically.  But “Eternal Sunshine” opened in the spring, not the summer, and faced only modest competition from the other new films in wide release opposite it, “Dawn of the Dead” and “Taking Lives.”

Last summer, Focus opened its arty thriller “The Debt” over Labor Day weekend in about 1,800 screens. The movie grossed $9.9 million in its debut, and $31.2 million total domestically. This summer, the studio has done well with filmmaker Wes Anderson's"Moonrise Kingdom," which has grossed a strong $7.5 million to date in limited release (the film expands into several hundred more theaters next weekend).

David Brooks, Focus’ marketing president, says the holiday months can be an ideal time for all kinds of movies, not just popcorn titles aimed at teens and young adults. “Summer in general brings an expansion of the audience,” Brooks said. “People are available because they are taking time off.” Focus is hopeful that thanks to the upcoming Independence Day holiday, “Seeking a Friend” could play strongly for several weeks. “It’s a really rich play period,” Brooks said.

While the film’s premise isn’t necessarily cheery, Focus is making sure that its creative materials emphasize the story’s humor and romance.  “We’re selling the comedy and the concept, with a dash of the drama,” Brooks said.

Audience tracking surveys show that women aged 25 and older are among those most interested in the film.  Reviews for the film have been polarized and mixed to negative.

“I think it's the kind of movie that would resonate with a lot of people, so hopefully amidst the blockbusters it will be found,” Scafaria said. “I made this movie for everybody. I think it will speak to romantics and hopefully we convert some cynics. It really does depend on your life experience and how much you want to feel. “

Added Carell jokingly:  “This is the typical summer movie. This is the typical summer fare. This is a typical popcorn movie. There are explosions and fires in this. There's a riot.”

But then he turned more serious. “Tonally it's a bit different,” the actor said. “Certainly the subject matter is a little different and the comedy is very absurdist.”

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