Movies search for 'greater meaning'

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Universal Pictures' unusual decision to rerelease "Peaceful Warrior" last weekend would seem out of step with a Hollywood busy promoting escapist comedies like "Blades of Glory" or 3-D family films like "Meet the Robinsons." But it points toward an emerging market that a number of entertainment companies are attempting to tap.

Based on Dan Millman's "Way of the Peaceful Warrior" -- its paperback edition carries the subtitle "A Book That Changes Lives" -- the movie is the latest example of so-called "transformational" films targeting a growing niche audience that has been dubbed "cultural creatives."

"This is a genre and movement that is absolutely coming of age," said John Raatz, founder and CEO of the Visioneering Group. "There is a hunger in this audience, and not only in this core audience but even in a larger audience of more mainstream-minded people who are yearning and searching for greater meaning in their lives."

Cami Winikoff, president of Sobini Films, which produced "Warrior," said more than half of the company's development slate is devoted to producing films "that will have an impact on the world. There couldn't be a better example of that than 'Peaceful Warrior.' It is one of the best-loved books in the mind/body/spirit genre."

The movie version picked up slightly more than $1 million when Lionsgate released it in limited release last year, but Universal was convinced the film possessed crossover potential. So it struck a deal with Mark Amin and Winikoff, two of the film's producers, and Lionsgate to rerelease it in 615 theaters with the help of an innovative marketing plan involving $15 million in free tickets distributed by Best Buy. About one-fifth of the 1.5 million tickets given away were redeemed during the weekend. The studio reported a $2.6 million boxoffice -- with about 10% of the audience actually purchasing tickets rather than taking advantage of the giveaway, funded by Sobini Films.

"I didn't believe there was a traditional marketing campaign that would work for this film and effectively communicate why this movie is working for the people who are loving it," Universal president of marketing Adam Fogelson said. "People like Sting, Tony Robbins and Deepak Chopra are saying this is a movie that can help change people's lives. How could you ever make that statement in a marketing campaign and have anyone believe you?"

Despite the marketing challenge, Fogelson sees further opportunity in the growing audience for such transformational films. "I think there is absolutely a viable and powerful business model in making and distributing films for this audience," he said. "I think it starts with knowing there is a large enough and very passionate audience that can be found and spoken to and served. Whether it can expand beyond that I think is entirely a function of what kind of product is created."

Winikoff praised Universal for its effort. "You can't take a movie like 'Peaceful Warrior' and compete with a movie like 'Blades of Glory.' It's just too difficult to reduce some movies to a 30-second ad campaign. With Universal, you've got a studio that's trying to come up with an idea to have these movies with meaning get into the marketplace in a way that can compete. I can't imagine that all the studios wouldn't like to make this business work financially."

The potential of this emerging film genre first attracted attention when "What the #$*! Do We Know!?" a combination documentary-drama about science and spirituality made on a shoestring budget, grossed more than $12 million at the boxoffice in 2004 and sold more than 1 million DVDs after virtually every distributor in Hollywood turned it down. Raatz said he worked with the filmmakers who released the movie themselves, convincing theaters in Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Phoenix to screen the film, which played to full theaters for five consecutive months before Samuel Goldwyn Films took over its distribution in summer 2004.

Goldwyn is known in the cultural creatives community as one of the theatrical distributors particularly interested in this type of fare. "We want to serve an audience that's underserved by the studios," Goldwyn president Meyer Gottlieb said. "We are actively looking for inspirational films, but we have to like a movie and have an emotional attachment to it before we get involved with it." Last fall, Goldwyn released "Conversations With God," adapted and inspired from the best-selling books by Neale Donald Walsch.

Inferno Distribution, which co-financed "Warrior" and is the film's international distributor, is interested in making films for the cultural creatives as well, but it's also looking for projects that can cross over to a wider audience. "We're looking for opportunities to get involved in films with themes that raise consciousness but that are still mainstream accessible," Inferno president Bill Johnson said.

The mind/body/spirit audience is not limited to film. AOL co-founder Steve Case's Revolution Living is a majority investor in the Lime multiplatform media company, which launched in late 2005 to provide programming for the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) market. "Lime is a resource that urges us to be mindful of the choices we make in what we eat, how we live, what we buy and what inspires us," Lime founder and CEO C.J. Kettler said.

"Lime aims to provide introspection, reflection and practical suggestions of how each of us might better ourselves, our families and our climate." Lime content is available on Lime's broadband channel at www.lime.com, VOD, Sirius Satellite Radio, Apple's iTunes and Verizon and Sprint cell phones.

Lime's initial offerings have included programming from Chopra, yoga expert Rodney Yee and eco-stylist Denny Seo. Best-selling author and pioneer of integrative medicine Andrew Weil is launching his first-ever live call-in radio program on Lime Radio this month on Sirius. "We're not just looking to reach the people that we know are already in this category; we recognize that more and more this category is growing and has become part of the mainstream," Lime senior vp programming Judith Tolkow said. "We are creating a mainstream brand."

Gaiam, a $220 million company that distributes 46% of the home videos in the health and wellness category, began expanding into theatrical production and distribution last year with two films -- "Illusion," starring Kirk Douglas, and "The Real Dirt on Farmer John."

Gaiam also is the majority shareholder of the Spiritual Cinema Circle -- a subscription-based DVD film club designed to connect "spiritual" moviegoers worldwide -- and owner of the Spiritual Cinema Network, a network of alternative venues such as churches, bookstores and community centers that screen movies with spiritual themes before theatrical or DVD releases and then split the proceeds with the filmmakers.

The emergence of the mind/body/spirit genre, the success of such production companies as Walden Media and Participant Prods., the visibility of such films as "Syriana," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Crash," "An Inconvenient Truth" and even "The Passion of the Christ" all suggest that moviegoers' appetite for films with deeper meaning -- whether it be political, social, religious or spiritual -- is on the rise.

The dangerous state of the world after Sept. 11 appears to be contributing to the trend. "Historically, when things in the world are difficult, complicated or scary, Hollywood has always looked to provide product that gives people an opportunity to both escape and/or imagine a better version of themselves or this world," Fogelson said. "I think now is the time that people want to laugh, feel good and imagine that the best is possible for themselves, their families, their friends and the world."
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