Marketing matters for quirky movies

Some companies eyeing a sophisticated audience

NEW YORK -- Batten the hatches -- the hipsters are coming.

Even as Hollywood studios increasingly aim at the broadest possible audience, a few companies are experimenting with the opposite approach in these summer months and beyond: They're making smart, quirky movies for a sophisticated young audience.

The pics are trying to be the next "Garden State," a 2004 film that, like other hipster pics, can be generally defined as trafficking in moody music, casual style and characters who are disaffected.

But to succeed, these films will need to compete in a more difficult market than "Garden State" did only five years ago -- and do even bigger business than that pic's $27 million.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the form is Fox Searchlight's upcoming breakup dramedy "(500) Days of Summer," Marc Webb's subtle, funny and uncharacteristically guy-centric view of modern romance.

Starring Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as a reflective architect type and Zooey Deschanel as his ethereal, sometimes unattainable love interest, the pic was one of the breakouts at Sundance this year. It has all the makings of a summer counterprogramming hit along the lines of "Little Miss Sunshine" three years ago.

But even by the standards of Searchlight -- which with films like "Garden State" and "Juno" has elevated hipster marketing to an art form -- "Summer" is a tricky enterprise.

Its most appealing aspects are moments of quirky, contextual comedy and its mood of melancholy -- not exactly the kind of stuff that plays well as you dig into your popcorn waiting for the feature to begin.

"This movie is particularly challenging to put forward in a 30-second spot or even a two-minute trailer," says Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley.

The specialty division has thus staged a remarkably prolific screening campaign. Since its Sundance premiere, the movie has traveled to 28 festivals and played 215 word-of-mouth screenings. Searchlight also staged a six-city giveaway on June 21, watching as Twitter and Facebook fueled the events' popularity.

Saturation isn't a concern; execs say that in a brand-driven marketplace, there's no such thing as too much attention.

But the company also wants to be precise about who it gets attention from, and has devised a campaign that's either surgical or schizophrenic, or both.

One TV spot, aired during "Family Guy" and "South Park," features a shower-sex comedy scene (which is not entirely reflective of the movie's tone) while another sticks to the quiet emotional aspects.

On the publicity side, Deschanel is booked for the older-skewing "The Tonight Show." But the studio is being equally aggressive with promos in Suck magazine, at GenArt and at other indie venues.

Execs admit the word-of-mouth buildup is important for overall awareness, but that it's not enough. "We need to take the vague buzz and turn it into a specific buzz," Utley says.

The same could be said for hipster movies in general.

Gone are the days when a small movie aimed at twenty- and thirtysomethings could simply take its time to grow into a hit, something Searchlight did when it nurtured "Napoleon Dynamite" to $44 million. The film stayed in theaters for nine months and was out for three months before it even hit 1,000 screens.

That's in part because with media reacting faster than ever, movies don't sneak up on consumers the way they once did. And in part it's because budgets are swelling, raising the stakes.

Hipster movies are now big business. Warners' fall release "Where the Wild Things Are" -- based on a perennial children's classic but with a quirky director like Spike Jonze and music from the Arcade Fire -- is a prototypical hipster pic. But the film's budget is conservatively estimated at $75 million -- not exactly a scrappy Sundance pic that can afford to play mostly with the Silverlake set.

Focus Features this month has already tried a hipster pic with Sam Mendes' "Away We Go," about a pregnant mid-thirties couple traveling North America seeking their new hometown.

So far it's drawing some solid results. In four weeks of a platform release, "Go" has earned nearly $5 million and averaged no less than $3500 per screen on a given weekend.

But capturing the audience is different than your usual one- or two-quadrant pic, since the audience is more media-savvy and less susceptible to a conventional campaign.

"With movies like these you can't throw a blanket over (your marketing spots)," said Focus Features president of marketing David Brooks. "You have to be more precise. But the outlets are out there, especially in the cable world." He cites Comedy Central and other venues.

Of course too much hipster marketing can turn off a mainstream audience. And even those who fancy themselves as hipsters hate the term for its overused, Madison Avenue ring. In the end, no matter how they approach it, a movie marketer will face the ultimate challenge with hipster pics -- marketing to the unmarketable.