Richard Dreyfuss film a dark horse for awards

New Films' 'Lightkeepers' could make a splash this season

"The Lightkeepers" is a dark horse candidate for awards season attention, offering up Richard Dreyfuss in his showiest lead performance since 1995's "Mr. Holland's Opus" and an offbeat marketing plan by a well-financed foreign sales company intent on making a splash in the U.S. marketplace.

Opening on Friday in Los Angeles for an Oscar-qualifying run, the performance-driven period drama written and directed by Daniel Adams also features strong performances by Blythe Danner, Tom Wisdom and Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep's daughter) in an old-fashioned love story set on Cape Cod in 1912.

"Lightkeeprs" is the third platform release this year by New Films International, a Sherman Oaks-based foreign sales company founded by Nesim Hason that has output deals in Latin America, Japan, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The move into domestic distribution comes at a time it has gotten much harder to make presales without a U.S. release in place.

Hason already has committed to spend about $450,000 to advertise the picture and send DVDs of "Lightkeepers" to Golden Globe and Academy voters. He plans to spend several million more if it gets any awards-season traction.

"Everything is being done with my money," Hason said. "I went 29 years to make it, and now I'm trying to spend it to get more."

After beginning his career selling movies in his native Turkey and Eastern Europe in 1980, Hason founded New Films International in 1996 to do global movie and TV sales. The domestic operation launched this year with limited releases for "A Beautiful Life," starring Dana Delany and Debi Mazar, and "Turning Green," starring Timothy Hutton, but neither garnered much boxoffice. However, it did establish New Films, said Tim Swain, the former Trimark executive who heads domestic distribution.

"In terms of being receptive to another distributor, the marketplace reaction has been great," said Swain, who expects New Films to release eight to 12 films next year, with a mix of art house fare and genre films that can be exploited on more screens.

Hason said the company acquired "Lightkeepers" during the summer, providing finishing funds for postproduction, including a musical score and additional editing. It was shot in the spring on location in Massachusetts, where it benefited from tax incentives that offset the $3 million cost, all privately financed.

New Films' strategy is to open the movie in March in five to 15 markets but not big cities -- with the exception of Los Angeles, where it will get a limited run. The emphasis will be on places where there is a large adult population, including Boca Raton, Fla., Scottsdale, Ariz., and Palm Springs.

"This is for an older audience who we believe can be bundled together by not going into the big cities," said executive producer Judith James, Dreyfuss' longtime producing partner. "Richard always says, 'My audience walks to the theater, they don't run to the theater.' That doesn't make the movie unworthy. It just makes the usual wide release approach to marketing wrong."

Said executive producer Straw Weisman, head of production for New Films: "We're making some bold moves into the marketplace. We expect to be a player, and we believe for a film with these kind of rare and charming performances, you can make your own marketplace."