'Frozen River,' A Study In Oscar Marketing

With its Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay, Frozen River is emerging as this year's "Little Indie Makes Good." Its producers deftly negotiated the movie marketing game and now are planning to capitalize on this opportunity.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. The Motion Picture Academy rolls out the red carpet for the Oscars in just a couple of weeks. And a small-budget film called "Frozen River" could be this year's fairy-tale success. It's up for two awards.

The story it tells is anything but a fairy tale. It's about a mother who begins smuggling immigrants across the Canadian border, in order to make the final payment on a new double-wide trailer. Nate DiMeo reports.

NATE D: You can view "Frozen River" as a searing drama about what happens when people are pushed to their breaking points by unrelenting economic struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FROZEN RIVER")

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) That was an accident.

CHARLIE MCDERMOTT: (As T.J.) (Unintelligible). You shot him in the foot.

Woman (Actor): (As character) T.J., he spent the food money on scratch cards.

MCDERMOTT: (As T.J.) (Unintelligible) done it before.

MEO: Or you can view "Frozen River" another way.

MICHAEL BARKER: I think the film is quite a Cinderella story.

MEO: A Cinderella story in which Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, is the fairy godmother. Every year around this time, there seems to be one small film that gets its big moment: The plucky upstart plucked from obscurity. The "Frozen River" version of the story started where a lot of them do.

BARKER: At the Sundance Film Festival one year ago.

MEO: Where Barker goes every year. He says other executives go looking for the next "Little Miss Sunshine": The next indie darling with mass-market appeal. He's looking for something else.

BARKER: The movie that is very high quality, but it's not a movie that's very obvious in how to sell, or how to market it.

MEO: The magic here - the bippity-boppity-bo, if you must - that turns small, challenging movies, like the bleak and often brutal "Frozen River," into Cinderella stories, is actually a methodical business plan that Barker and his team have honed, award season after award season. It goes like this.

BARKER: Our plan from the beginning was to open the film in August.

MEO: When fatigued moviegoers are seeking refuge from summer blockbusters.

BARKER: We try to capture as many of the good reviews we can.

MEO: And the reviews for "Frozen River" were glowing. And with glowing reviews, they can line up more screens. And when the company buys a tiny movie with non-stars and a first-time director, they get people willing to sit down for endless interviews promoting it. And all that good press put them on schedule to take their best shot at an Oscar nomination, a perfectly timed Oscar screener.

BARKER: For the longest time, we're the only film that the Academy members had in their hand to watch.

MEO: Each fall, movie companies fishing for Oscar votes send members free DVDs. The first ones usually start showing up around Halloween. "Frozen River" went out at the beginning of September, before it could be buried under a pile of "Benjamin Button" and "Dark Knight" screeners. The plan worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR ANNOUNCEMENT)

Unidentified Man: For Best Original Screenplay the nominees are: For Best Original Screenplay the nominees are: Courtney Hunt, for "Frozen River."

MEO: Now, Sony Pictures Classics is reaping the benefits. It had scheduled the DVD release for right around now, to take advantage of a potential nomination. And now orders are up. And when it's time to make deals with TV and cable, Academy Award nominee "Frozen River" will be much more attractive than plain old "Frozen River."

BARKER: Our goal is for the film to have the longest life possible. And "Frozen River" is probably a textbook example. And we keep going. We see what happens at the next stage.

MEO: Your classic Cinderella story. Your classic, multinational, media- conglomerate-orchestrated-and-executed Cinderella story.

COURTNEY HUNT: Michael, he had a plan and instinct on this.

MEO: That's Courtney Hunt, "Frozen River's" first-time director and now nominated screenwriter, an overnight sensation - after 10 years fighting to get this movie made.

HUNT: Well, I thought once I got into Sundance and sold the movie, that I was a big shot. But, it turns out, not as big of a shot as I thought I was.

MEO: She says at each mile-marker of the promotional plan, she's found that the movie business opens up to her just a little bit more. A win at Sundance gets you some exciting meetings. A good theatrical run gets better ones. And now, with an Academy Award nomination, she's a bigger shot still - the kind who can pick and choose her next project.

Meanwhile, the folks at Sony Pictures Classics just got back from this year's Sundance, with a new set of movies about to get the Cinderella treatment.

For NPR News, I'm Nate DiMeo.

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