Disney targeting Christians for 'Secretariat'

Marketers employing same strategy used by 'The Blind Side'

That Disney has been marketing its Oct. 8 release "Secretariat" to horse aficionados and sports enthusiasts is obvious. But unless you're an influential Christian -- preferably one with a popular website -- you probably didn't know that the studio also has been leaning on the strategy employed by "The Blind Side" by going after what industry insiders like to call the "faith-based audience."

Director Randall Wallace seems to be handling the bulk of the marketing on the Christian front, which makes sense because the "Braveheart" screenwriter repeatedly has said that his faith informs his filmmaking, a reverence perhaps best displayed with his direction of 2002's "We Were Soldiers."

"Jesus didn't argue doctrinal questions whenever he was asked a question," Wallace told HollywoodJesus.com while promoting "Secretariat." "He almost always responded with story -- because the stories carry more truth than our philosophical arguments do."

Disney PR types haven't been shy about comparing "Secretariat" to "Blind Side," which is understandable given that studio head Rich Ross once lamented that Disney, not Warner Bros., should have distributed the latter film. Plus, there no doubt is some wishful thinking happening at Disney owing to "Blind Side's" heavenly $256 million haul at the domestic box office.

But comparisons between the two movies are real, the most glaring being that both are based on true sports stories involving a strong female lead. Movie bloggers already are placing bets on whether "Secretariat's" Diane Lane will get an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Penny Chenery, owner of the famed racehorse, just as Sandra Bullock won best actress for her turn as Leigh Anne Tuohy in "Blind Side."

But the way "Secretariat" doesn't shy away from politics -- portraying conservatives and liberals honorably -- and embraces Christian themes also are reminiscent of "Blind Side."

"Secretariat" even opens with a lengthy quote from the Bible, a portion of God's speech to Job. A trailer that includes those lines is on Christian websites all over the Internet, and some of those sites contain the earliest reviews of the film and offer users a chance to see advanced screenings.

The Bible quote is "transcendent," Wallace told The Hollywood Reporter. "I wanted to capture that timelessness and majesty. The idea that courage prevails."

At a screening for a group called Catholic Media Review that included remarks from Wallace, the invitation boasted, "Not only is Randall one of the most successful directors of all time, he is also a devout Christian." A film reviewer there "highly recommended" the film to readers and noted "a definite subtext of faith which is as rare these days as it is welcome."

That subtext includes a dramatic singing of "Oh Happy Day! When Jesus Walked" at the movie's climax, and horse groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) speaks reverently of God's plan and being "lifted up."

Although Wallace freely discusses what he has been up to regarding "Secretariat," Disney isn't talking about its marketing campaign. One executive at a rival studio disparaged the efforts and said only older moviegoers are showing much interest. The rival exec said Disney will be lucky to bring in half the $34 million that "Blind Side" earned during its opening weekend.

Wallace isn't concerned, confident that the film will appeal to a wide demographic.

"I have high hopes people with middle-American values will enjoy it, and we know from screenings it resonates with progressives who like Penny's independence and strength," he said. "We celebrated the same values in 'Braveheart' and 'We Were Soldiers,' but those movies had an element of loss in them. With this movie, the audience is cheering like it's a rock concert."

"Blind Side" was the true story of an essentially homeless teenager adopted by a conservative Christian couple. Although the politics in "Secretariat" are less central to the story, they're not ignored. Except for the eldest daughter, the Chenery family members were political conservatives during the early 1970s, when the movie takes place.

Chenery's husband (Dylan Walsh) is portrayed as the obvious right-winger who isn't thrilled with his wife's decision to pull double duty after she inherits her father's horse ranch, nor is he happy about his hippie daughter's embrace of all that "commie crap" she's getting from anti-Vietnam War protesters. His values are portrayed as old-fashioned, but they're not belittled.

Politicos on the right side of the aisle no doubt also will appreciate the appearance of former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson in a good-guy role as well as the film's statement against large inheritance taxes, portrayed as a looming threat that could derail the protagonist's heroic efforts.

One particularly political though short scene has the dad explaining to his children the concept of there being a cost to freedom.

Wallace said Chenery, who makes a cameo appearance in the film, was "deeply satisfied" with the way he dealt with politics in the film.