Dr. Media, says, here we go, the message from Hollywood, is , tada, it’s hard to make a hit movie, a sleeper hit movie no less. Like it isn’t hard to make a nonsleeper hit ?? The most intriguing aspect of this piece is at the end where the author mentions that the Net buzz makes it harder to keep a sleeper under the radar. Well gee whiz, isn’t the precise reason for a sleeper becoming a hit is the spreading of the word to go see it–see “Snakes on a Plane”, a dumb horror flick that got buzzed into a money maker only from netbuzz, and disappeared as soon as the shine was off the title. The new way of creating a sleeper hit, in fact the best chance ever–see the music biz–is exposure via the net. At last there is a system in place which allows indie media makers the possibility of getting their stuff see by somebody in addition to film festival directors.

Looking for Sleepers in a Wake-Up World – New York Times: “October 8, 2006
Looking for Sleepers in a Wake-Up World

October 8, 2006

Looking for Sleepers in a Wake-Up World


Correction Appended


“DEATH OF A PRESIDENT,” the controversial quasi documentary imagining the governmental and public response to the assassination of President Bush, was among the hottest tickets at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival. A movie that had almost no profile before the festival was suddenly a cause célèbre, winning an international critics’ prize for its boldness. Although most studios balked at distributing it, Newmarket Films, the company that released “The Passion of the Christ,” bought “Death of a President” and plans to rush it into release on Oct. 27, hoping for the kind of payoff that will make all those other nervous companies wish they had jumped in.

But even if it does well, “Death of a President,” already heavily exposed in the press and on the Web, can never become that most delicious of movie phenomena, a sleeper hit. A real sleeper seems to come from nowhere: the audience shows up before the experts and insiders have figured it out.

That kind of surprise is disappearing from a business where marketing has become increasingly sophisticated and Internet buzz quite deafening. “It’s a very transparent world these days,” said Marc Shmuger, the chairman of Universal Pictures. “Movies do not come out of the blue. As studio marketers have become more aggressive, all the freshness has been appropriated by the campaign. So it’s almost impossible to have a sleeper.”

The mythology of sleepers is endlessly appealing. Everyone loves an underdog and wants to believe that ordinary moviegoers have power over the studios’ behemoth marketing machines. Thus the thrill that accompanied “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” only four years ago, as it made the trip from low-budget bagatelle to outsize hit, with more than $241 million in domestic ticket sales.

Small films may still break out, of course. But it becomes ever less likely that they’ll actually outrun their own hype.

“Everyone is talking about a film before they see it,” observed Bob Berney, the president of the distribution company Picturehouse. “That is a new phenomenon.”

David Dinerstein, who has overseen marketing and distribution for specialty film divisions including Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics and now works as a consultant for the Yari Film Group, concurred. “It’s harder to sneak through the cracks,” he said. “Communication is so quick that you know almost immediately if you have a hit, or if your picture is doomed.”

In the past audiences actually did discover unheralded movies. In 1987 “Dirty Dancing,” a modest period piece, set in the early 60’s, about a young woman’s liberation during a summer at a Catskills resort, took the entire country by surprise and surpassed more heavily promoted movies at the box office. A decade later “The Full Monty,” a small British comedy with no name actors, earned $45 million in the United States (and much more around the world), was nominated for a best-picture Oscar and spawned a hit Broadway musical.

Whether “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), a tiny film that erupted in the marketplace, grossing $160 million for Artisan Entertainment, was a true sleeper can be debated: it benefited from a savvy Internet campaign that helped stoke the fires.

But “Greek Wedding” was the real thing. “Hollywood had written off the older audience,” said Mr. Berney, who ran IFC Films when it released that movie. “But seniors went to see it 8 or 9 or 10 times. Later it became a date movie for younger audiences. It was about a family that everybody related to.”

Three years later Lionsgate was startled to discover the potency of another neglected audience, African-Americans, who turned out in droves to see “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.”

“The movie wasn’t tracking well,” said Tom Ortenberg, the president for theatrical films at Lionsgate. “That’s because it appealed to a nontraditional movie audience. We thought it might make five or six million dollars on the opening weekend. Instead it made $22 million.”

These days films are far less likely to arrive under the radar. And two of the summer’s success stories offer some insight into the changing dynamic of surprise.

“Little Miss Sunshine,” a Fox Searchlight release that has taken in more than $50 million at the box office, was a genuine discovery at Sundance in January. Its two directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, were veterans of commercials and music videos rather than wunderkinder. So “Little Miss Sunshine” didn’t come into the festival as a hot ticket. But right after the first showing it stood out from the pack.

Several studios plunged into a bidding war, and Fox Searchlight won the auction with an offer of $10.5 million, the highest amount ever paid for a movie at Sundance. Once the studio paid that much, the press for the movie exploded, and its success was pretty much guaranteed. It had an extremely high profile by the time it opened in July.

Another Sundance movie qualifies as a more authentic, if modest, sleeper, because it never generated the same buzz. “The Illusionist,” starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel, is a tale of romance, magic and political intrigue in late-19th-century Vienna. Most Sundance hits tend to be gritty contemporary tales, and this movie didn’t fit that mold. “It didn’t catch fire at Sundance,” Mr. Dinerstein admitted.

Michael London, one of the film’s producers, elaborated: “The movie has crowd-pleasing elements, especially the trick ending. Audiences love to be fooled. But those crowd-pleasing elements were at odds with the very nature of Sundance.”

Universal was interested in buying “The Illusionist,” Mr. London said, but the studio could not come to terms with Bob Yari, who had financed the film. “The deal never closed,” Mr. London said. “And so two months later we were a cursed movie.”

The other studios, Mr. Dinerstein said, “all felt it was too challenging to market.” Period films usually have a limited audience. In addition, although the actors were well respected, they were not considered surefire box office draws.

With no offers on the table, Mr. Yari decided to release the film himself. “At first we thought it was crazy,” Mr. London said. “But in a way it doesn’t matter who is distributing a movie if audiences respond to it.”

Mr. Dinerstein chose to open “The Illusionist” the same weekend in August as “Snakes on a Plane,” which turned out to be the opposite of a sleeper. It was a movie that had generated a huge amount of Internet chatter but turned out to be dead on arrival.

“I saw a great opportunity in opening against ‘Snakes on a Plane,’ ” he said. “That movie appealed to a younger male audience, and we were going for women and what I might call a more rarefied audience.

“The counterprogramming worked,” Mr. Dinerstein continued. “A month earlier no one expected anything from our movie. Suddenly I was getting calls asking, ‘Where did this come from?’ ” “The Illusionist” grossed about $25 million in its first month and is still playing.

“There is so much clutter that it’s harder for word of mouth to spread,” Mr. London said. “But that makes it even more rewarding when it does happen.”

Correction: Oct. 15, 2006

An article last Sunday about the disappearance of sleeper hits in Hollywood referred incompletely to the producers of the film “The Illusionist.” In addition to Michael London, the others were Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Bob Yari and Cathy Schulman.