Entertainment A-List 2009

Entertainment A-List No. 5: Fox Searchlight

A Dogged Director Leads 'Slumdog' to Millions

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Nevermind its Oscar for Best Picture or its nearly $350 million in worldwide grosses -- that "Slumdog Millionaire" was released at all is something of a minor miracle. Caught flat-footed by the inopportune shutdown of Warner Independent Pictures in the middle of last year, Danny Boyle's film suddenly needed a new home, and new handlers, fast.

Nancy Utley
Peter Rice
Steve Gilula

(From top) Nancy Utley, Peter Rice and Steve Gilula.

In July, Mr. Boyle and his London-based producer, Christian Colson, reached out to Nancy Utley, Steve Gilula and Peter Rice at Fox Searchlight, the troika who'd adroitly handled tricky films such as "Little Miss Sunshine" in 2006 and "Juno" in 2007. But Mr. Colson had a precondition: "Slumdog" would have to be released by year's end; he didn't want to see it moldering on a shelf.

That left a scant six weeks before the crucial Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, and barely six months before the crowded Christmas awards season. Or, in Hollywood parlance, no time at all. But even with the lawyers still haggling, Searchlight execs set about forming a marketing plan for a picture they didn't technically even have the right to release.

"We do some of our best work under the gun," said Nancy Utley, the specialty division's marketing head. "Often your first inclinations are the right ones. When you have too much time, you can second-guess your work."

Having had to release acquisitions from Sundance and other festivals in similarly crunched time, "we knew it was possible" to release "Slumdog" by November, said Mr. Gilula. "What we didn't know that was if it could overcome the obvious obstacles. You know: A cast no one had heard of, a third of the movie in Hindi," added Ms. Utley.

In fact, there wasn't even time to transfer the movie to 35-mm print for the festivals; instead, Mr. Boyle flew from London with the entire, unfinished film on his digital video camera.

Early signs
But it was at those Toronto and Telluride screenings that the Searchlight trio first started to get an indication of how strong the public response would be.

Worldwide gross revenue
Academy Awards
"We've been there before, so our Geiger counters can detect the difference between the polite applause and the enthusiastic response of the crowd and the press," said Mr. Gilula.

Encouraged, Mr. Boyle was sent back to London to finish the movie. Soon after, Searchlight noticed an opening in the release pattern it could exploit: Desperate for more marketing dollars, Paramount's "The Soloist" had been pushed into the new year, as had the Weinstein Co.'s "The Reader." If they hurried, they'd benefit. But that meant the marketing of "Slumdog" was going to have to be a publicity-driven sprint, one made harder by an R-rating that kept many consumer brands from serving as promotional partners. Lonely Planet guidebooks, for example, was desperate to participate, but couldn't marshal any promotion in the short time allowed.

"We really just decided it was a word-of-mouth movie, and that we'd screen for anyone who'd sit in a seat to watch it," said Ms. Utley.

Indeed, Searchlight fired up a dizzying 186 free word-of-mouth screenings in 64 cities in the U.S. and Canada. By comparison, "for most studio pictures, the normal number is zero," Ms. Utley explained, "but we would not have gotten anywhere near where we got if we didn't have the unique qualities of Danny Boyle."

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