Hollywood Revival File: 'The Perfect Game' stages an amazing ninth-inning comeback
Two years ago, I took my baseball-crazed son and some of his Little League pals to see "The Perfect Game," a delightful little film about a rag-tag Mexican sandlot baseball team who against all odds ends up racking up a stunning series of victories -- one of them a perfect game -- in the 1957 Little League World Series. The film, which is based on a true story, resonated in a big way with my Little Leaguers, who totally identified with the kids' grit and determination.
But even though the film had two rising stars from the Disney Channel, it never made it into the theaters. Every once in a while my son would ask what happened to the film. I had no idea. Until now. After a long and messy series of setbacks, "The Perfect Game" is being released April 16 in 500 theaters nationwide. Its surprise return is almost as much of an underdog saga as the movie's own storyline, which not only offers baseball heroics, but telling examples of poverty, racism and religious faith.
So what happened? The film was originally slated to be released in July 2008 by Lionsgate. But at the last minute, the studio yanked the film from its release schedule, apparently after the film's original backers couldn't deliver the marketing money they'd promised to support the theatrical release. The film lay dormant for the next 18 months, mired in a series of financial and legal disputes that ended with the film being put into receivership. Several studios were approached, including Disney, but no one thought the film had any serious commercial chances, since outside of the young Disney Channel stars, the best-known actor was Cheech Marin, who plays a twinkly-eyed parish priest who serves as a guardian angel to the boys on the team.
But two of the film's producers, Christian Tureaud and David Salzberg, who run High Road Entertainment, managed to find a new source of marketing money, thanks to a $5-million P&A deal the trustee of the receivership struck with a New York-based investment group. The producers also brought in industry veteran Dennis Rice as the film's marketing and distribution consultant. Rice, a former head of marketing at Miramax, is putting together a campaign he hopes will help the tiny film register on family moviegoers' radar screen.
Rice is building the campaign around the presence of the film's best-known young actors: Jake Austin, star of "Wizards of Waverly Place," and Moises Arias, who has one of the leading roles in "Hannah Montana."
"Jake and Moises are my secret weapons," Rice says. "The fact that they are such recognizable stars of major Disney Channel shows gives me an opportunity to tap into their vast social media network. It's almost a blessing that the film got hung up in limbo because these two kids have become bigger stars than ever."
Rice says the two actors each have several hundred thousand Twitter followers, giving him a potent social network marketing tool to broaden the film's demographic appeal. He has also developed a strategic distribution pattern geared toward reaching what he sees as the film's three core audiences -- families, Hispanic audiences and the faith community. The film, for example, is being released in 15 cities with the heaviest Hispanic population, including L.A., New York, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, Phoenix, Tucson and San Antonio.
To reach faith-based audiences, Rice has been concentrating on communities that have a large number of churches within a five-mile radius of a movie theater. "You have to take the movie to them instead to trying to get them to come to you," he says. "Since we don't have the marketing dollars of a big studio release, we're literally picking a theater and carpet-bombing the five-mile area around it."
By studio standards, Rice's TV campaign is small, but he hopes to reach a variety of niche audiences that could spread the word about the film. This weekend he's heading off to Kentucky, where he'll be showing the film at the 25th Annual Little League World Conference, hoping to make more converts.
"The Perfect Game" is still a long-shot bet, since low-budget family movies have a difficult time making a dent in a marketplace dominated by blockbuster studio releases. But if you love baseball or have a soft spot for stories about plucky underdogs, this is the movie to see. It doesn't have a big star like Sandra Bullock, but it has the same irresistible appeal that made "The Blind Side" such a heart-stirring crowd pleaser.