It's a 'Kite' amid clouds

Rollout a tricky one for Vantage

Paramount Vantage might have safely moved the young stars of "The Kite Runner" to an anonymous location, but now the tricky part really begins: packaging a foreign-language movie with weighty themes and no stars as a mainstream release.

The DreamWorks production, being released through Paramount Vantage's Paramount Classics label, opens Friday in limited release before rolling out wider during the coming weeks. It poses one of the most fraught challenges of any movie this fall as a specialty division tries to turn what was an unlikely best-seller about friendship and ethnic strife in Central Asia into a big-screen blockbuster.

Hovering over it is a Vantage release from earlier in the year, "A Mighty Heart," which took on a similar part of the world deploying more obvious commercial elements (Angelina Jolie and a ubiquitous Mariane Pearl) but earned just $15 million at the boxoffice.

The result has turned "Kite" into a marketing anomaly, with Vantage taking a grassroots approach that has focused on things most major rollouts ignore.

The specialty division has thrown dozens of screenings both for book clubs and in the heartland (literally, in the case of the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis); has embraced an unusual publicity figure in Khaled Hosseini, who wrote the book on which the movie is based; and thrown fundraisers with Afghani expat groups.

And Vantage has embarked on this campaign with a dearth of TV spots and trailers. "The English-language portions of the film don't lends themselves to clips, and the Dari will put some people off, so word-of-mouth is all you have," said one executive with knowledge of the campaign.

Or as an executive at another studio said: "The only thing you can do with a movie like this is screen the hell out of it."

"Kite," which tells the story of a boy who flees Afghanistan with his father during the Soviet invasion and then returns there under the Taliban to right a wrong he visited on his childhood friend, became a best-seller in 2003 as interest in the Taliban was near its peak. The movie hews closely to the book, which sold more than 4 million copies, and Vantage is hoping that many of the novel's fans turn out to theaters.

In a way, Vantage was put in this position because of circumstances beyond its control. Eager to avoid the wide release of "Mighty Heart," the company planned a slow burn for the Marc Forster picture, with "Kite Runner" slotted for an early November opening and then carefully rolling out through year's end.

But concerns developed that four of the movie's young Afghani stars could find themselves in danger from the surrounding community because of sexually suggestive elements in the film's plot line. So the company pushed the release back six weeks to move the boys out of Afghanistan and set them up with new lives in an unnamed location in the United Arab Emirates.

The result was to put "Kite" into a crowded and awards-crazed December. (The company declined comment for this report.)

The goal of the screenings — and of the domestic release strategy generally — is to avoid the stain of controversy and instead sell "Kite Runner" as an uplifting film, a feat that would have been difficult even before child-safety stories were splashed in the New York Times but became doubly tricky once they were.

The strategy abroad has been almost as complex, with the company trying a move that some studios, having seen its stars put in danger, might not have attempted: a major unveiling in the Arab world. The movie will play the Dubai International Film Festival that begins this weekend.

The international release then will unspool in a way more similar to how the movie originally was supposed to play in the U.S. "Kite" will open in several European and Asian countries nearly every week in January and February, culminating in a release in a Middle Eastern country, Turkey, at the end of February. (Out of safety concerns, Vantage will not release the movie in Afghanistan, though it's thought that pirated copies could end up in that country.)

While "Kite" is an $18 million bet that has formidable awards hopes — likely because of Vantage's awards-season success with "Babel" last year — it also is one with several production partners, which diversifies the risk. Participant and Sidney Kimmel joined DreamWorks on the project.

Vantage hired a Washington consultant to handle any fallout from issue of how it handled its child actors, and one of the film's producers, Bennett Walsh, has gone to Dubai in a bid for international goodwill.

The bid for goodwill among moviegoers could be equally tricky.

Borys Kit and Carly Mayberry contributed to this report.