'Elephant' marketing provides indie roadmap

Low-budget movie gets highest gross per-screen

NEW YORK - 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 to the US at the behest of their mother (Burstyn), but ends up sidetracked by an unexpected romance. After its 2006 Tribeca Film Festival premiere and a round on the fest circuit, the filmmakers decided to handle its own promotion and ink a distribution-only service deal with Strand Releasing.

Unison head Emanuel Michael worked with Priority Films to contact Asian, Thai, drug and alcohol groups, and film schools at local universities. The groups then emailed members inviting them to five weekend showings with in-theater Q&As that addressed their concerns. Priority used similar guerrilla  marketing tactics to launch the Cambodian sex slavery drama "Holly."

The real boost to its boxoffice, however, came with a unique strategy: a premiere at a 198-seat Angelika auditorium open to the public (with the $30 tickets notched in its boxoffice tally) and special Saturday night screenings including opening weekend parties.

Michael contacted Svedka Vodka and Thai beer co. Singha, who 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 at the Friday night Sunset 5 LA premiere, 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."