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'Senna' looks to step on the gas in the U.S.

July 11, 2011 |  6:30 am

It wasn't very much past sunrise on Sunday morning in downtown Manhattan, but Dave Moore had already been going great guns for nearly two hours. Sporting a T-shirt that bore the logos of the McLaren Formula One racing team, he and about 150 other generously accessorized F1 fans were assembled in a Tribeca restaurant to watch the U.S.' only known live feed of the  the British Grand Prix. (The race would be broadcast on tape delay later that afternoon on the Fox Sports-owned Speed Channel.)

As he watched the race, the 29-year-old screamed when a pass was made, groaned when a pit stop didn't go as planned and generally became part of the chorus punctuating the room's tense silence as, onscreen, drivers jostled for position at 200 mph. 

"My favorite? It's gotta be Hamilton," the Ireland-born, New York-raised Moore told a reporter after the race has ended and the driver, Lewis Hamilton. has finished a disappointing fourth. "Yeah, he takes chances. But I'd much rather that than someone like [Felipe] Massa, who just sits there and doesn't do anything," Moore added, in a tone that suggests you'd have to be crazy -- or a Ferrari fan -- to disagree.

Moore is the kind of devotee that those releasing "Senna," Asif Kapadia's documentary about iconoclastic Brazilian race-car driver Ayrton Senna and his rivalry with French driver Alain Prost, hope can turn their movie into a crossover phenomenon. The Sunday event was coordinated by the company releasing the film, Producers Distribution Agency, in advance of its American release on Aug. 12. A cottage outfit founded by the sales agent Cinetic Media, PDA is developing a specialty in subcultural documentary; last year, it brought out the Banksy movie "Exit Through the Gift Shop," guiding it to $3 million in box office and an Oscar nomination. 

With "Senna," it's trying a tricky double move: target discerning and partisan racing fans such as Moore, who follow every subplot in the F1 season, while also aiming for a non-racing audience that has been  responding to the human story since the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. (Without giving anything away, "Senna" doesn't lack for emotional candor or tragedy.) The movie has already won audience prizes at several film festivals.

Sports movies are a risky bet in general and, as sports go, Formula One barely maintains niche status in the U.S. But those behind the documentary believe there are advantages to releasing it stateside. "Americans do love their cars, and it's also just a great story of a rivalry," Kapadia told 24 Frames a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, where he had come to screen the film for audiences at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

"And the fact that, unlike Europeans, Americans don't know how Senna's story ends I think will really help the film." (The movie is already the third-highest-grossing documentary in Britain, where F1 is hugely popular.)

Although it's NASCAR that among auto-racing circuits has the highest profile in American cinema -- five years ago, Will Ferrell had a mega-hit with "Talladega Nights" -- Formula One is experiencing something of its own moment in Hollywood.  "Cars 2" featured an F1 character (the John Turturro-voiced Francesco Bernoulli). And at a British Grand Prix qualifying run earlier in the weekend, the telecast cut to an interview with a familiar face in the crowd: Ron Howard, who came to the sporting event to research "Rush," his upcoming film about the famed rivalry between 1970s drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

PDA and Kapadia believe that the sport is ripe for a U.S. breakout. So the principals have been screening the bejesus out of the movie, everything from festivals to automotive shows. Although some campaigns for movies without pre-sold elements try to hold back and build mystery -- witness, at a very different budget level, the tactic employed by J.J. Abrams and Paramount for "Super 8" -- the belief here is that any exposure is good exposure, and could help the film reach a broad audience. According to PDA executives, it's paid off; an informal survey, they say, shows that women are responding more strongly to the film than men.

On Sunday, those behind "Senna" were doing their best to make sure the devoted were paying attention. During commercial breaks, the television commentators at the race in Britain shouted out to the closed-circuit New York audience audience while also plugging "Senna." And after the race's conclusion, organizers in the room handed out swag and showed clips, mostly to the delight of the crowd. Everybody in the room knew Ayrton Senna, and remembered a fateful 1994 race in San Marino, Italy. "I was a kid, chin in hands, unable to take my eyes of the screen that day," Moore said. Filmmakers can only hope their movie attracts the same rapt attention.


A Formula One movie steps on the accelerator

Tears and thrills from the Formula One track in "Senna"

"Super 8" tries to find its place amid the summer tent poles

-- Steven Zeitchik in New York

Photo: The race-car driver Ayrton Senna in "Senna." Credit: Producers Distribution Agency