Del Toro's 'Labyrinth' gains Oscar momentum

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Talk about a high concept: A young girl encounters monsters inside a mythic maze in 1940s Spain, while a group of rebels struggles against the newly installed fascist regime. Not exactly one's standard popcorn fare. Yet, somehow, writer-director Guillermo del Toro's ambitious Picturehouse release "Pan's Labyrinth" has become a boxoffice and critical hit, playing equally well with Spanish speakers, art house cinema devotees and the comic book crowd that previously has supported the director's studio-based endeavors (namely, 2004's "Hellboy").

In fact, at press time, the R-rated fable featuring no name stars and a healthy share of graphic violence had just become the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever released in North America -- and that's after receiving six Oscar nominations late last month in a cross-section of categories: foreign-language film, art direction, makeup, original score, cinematography and original screenplay.

How exactly did this happen? According to del Toro, the genre itself has an inherent appeal, and audiences hunger for timeless stories that are well-told. "There's a universality of fantasy and particularly of fairy tales, I think -- the fact that they have this sort of simplicity that is, in reality, very complicated to execute," he says.


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Complicated, perhaps, but judging from the reviews and the accolades the film has collected to date, del Toro managed to execute his vision almost flawlessly. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, for example, wrote that "the brilliance of 'Pan's Labyrinth' is that its current of imaginative energy runs both ways. If this is magic realism, it is also the work of a real magician. ... Guillermo del Toro unapologetically and unpretentiously swears allegiance to a pop-fantasy tradition that encompasses comic books, science fiction and horror movies, but fanboy pastiche is the last thing on his mind. He is also a thoroughgoing cinephile, steeped in classical technique and film history."

Indeed. A native of Mexico, del Toro has been making films since he was a child, though his professional career commenced with 1994's "Cronos," a Spanish-language tale about the struggle to obtain a device that can bestow immortality. The movie featured plenty of the visual and thematic flourishes for which del Toro would become best known -- namely using genre tropes as a springboard to examine complex, even radical intellectual concepts -- and it announced his presence on the world-cinema stage in a big way, going on to sweep the Ariel de Oro Awards, Mexico's equivalent of the Oscars.

In the past 15 years, del Toro has continued to build on that early success with a collection of independently made and studio-financed projects. "Labyrinth" fell squarely into the independent model, and perhaps not surprisingly, the e13.5 million ($17.6 million) production encountered plenty of the hiccups that so often happen in indie filmmaking -- like, say, having a chief investor pull out of the project at the last minute, which left del Toro and the rest of the producers scrambling. Ultimately, they managed to bankroll the film as a co-production between Mexico and Spain, the latter nation hosting the shoot, which took place in summer 2005.

By comparison, securing a U.S. distribution deal was a breeze. Picturehouse president Bob Berney read the script during preproduction and later traveled to the set in Madrid to meet del Toro and the actors and see some of the early dailies. He says he fell in love with the project then, but he also understood that "Labyrinth" would be challenging to market to American moviegoers. "In the early stages, it is really nerve-wracking to think that you have to go a lot of different directions with a limited budget, and you could miss," Berney says.

The 20-minute standing ovation the film received after its debut at the 2006 Festival de Cannes helped allay some of those fears, Berney concedes. He set about planning a three-pronged marketing campaign that would target the disparate groups of moviegoers most likely to be interested in "Labyrinth." While Berney declines to comment on the total cost of marketing materials and ad buys, he says that the biggest expense involved appealing to the young, male, genre audience, which he targeted primarily through TV commercials and promotions at San Diego's late-summer confab Comic-Con International.

"I think they're more affected by expensive promotions, where I think the art audience, you can address them by editorial and reviews," Berney says. "The Latino audience also (responds to) print ads and radio, which are normally less expensive than television. We did TV spots, posters, newspaper ads in Spanish and also mainstream radio -- KROQ and stuff that has a heavy Latino audience."

By the time Picturehouse opened "Labyrinth" on 17 screens Dec. 29, viewers in all three key demographics were aware of and interested in seeing the film, he says.

"The greatest thing we did was having the time to really work on the film," he says. "The release date turned out to be perfect because we were able to focus on both the Academy (Awards) campaign and release campaign very efficiently and strategically. We turned out to be the fresh film at the end of the year that everybody talked about. I think you can only do that if you believe you really have the goods."

With "Labyrinth" now playing on roughly 1,100 screens, Berney says "it's where it should be" as it continues to enjoy solid per-screen averages and build on its gross of $21.69 million, besting 1993's "Like Water for Chocolate," which earned $21.66 in North America during its theatrical release.

"It's absolutely satisfying," del Toro says of the film's success. "Although monetarily, I don't have a good position on it, I do feel relieved and happy that the people who do have a monetary position on it are going to see the investment come back many times. What it warrants is that my independent ventures when I'm not doing studio films will become easier to finance. It's the sweetest of vindications."
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