October 27, 2008 / 9:53 AM / 10 years ago

Little "Elephant" roars at box office

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - How did a low-budget movie with no lead stars (save supporting actress Ellen Burstyn) get the highest opening per-screen gross in the country?

Seth Grossman’s drama “The Elephant King” scored $16,000 at New York’s Angelika Film Center this past weekend. The marketing efforts of producer Unison Films may provide a roadmap for struggling indies to get inexpensive attention in an overcrowded theatrical marketplace.

“King” stars a man (Tate Ellington) who travels to Thailand to bring his troubled older brother (Jonno Roberts) back home at the behest of their mother (Burstyn), but ends up sidetracked by an unexpected romance. After its 2006 premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and a round on the festival circuit, the filmmakers decided to handle its own promotion and sign a distribution-only service deal with Strand Releasing.

Unison head Emanuel Michael worked with Priority Films (which launched the Cambodian sex-slavery drama “Holly” with guerrilla marketing tactics) to contact Asian, Thai, drug and alcohol groups and universities for free e-mailings that brought groups to five in-theater Q&As addressing each of their concerns.

The real boost to its box office, however, came with two strategies: a premiere at a 198-seat Angelica auditorium open to the public (with the $30 tickets notched in its box office tally) and two opening weekend parties costing Unison next to nothing.

Michael contacted Svedka Vodka and Thai beer co. Singha, which saw a marketing opportunity in giving free liquor for an hour-long open bar at the events. Once they were on board, The Country Club and Socialista agreed to host them for free, keeping their crowds well into the morning.

Unison plans a similar strategy on Friday at the Los Angeles premiere in West Hollywood, followed by another free premiere party at The Standard.

The opening weekend success came despite mixed reviews, and whether the film will have any legs (or even repeat the strategy’s success in LA) remains to be seen. But with a theatrical release still key for the attention many films need to land profit-making ancillary deals, getting initial attention at a low cost is vital.

Michael, who saw his Miramax release “Eagle vs. Shark” fail to break through a crowded marketplace, hopes to expand his approach to other indies without distribution. “Independent film distributors haven’t updated their marketing strategy in 15 years,” he says, “and its something we need to do to survive.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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