Vin Diesel's movie makeover

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When "Find Me Guilty," director Sidney Lumet's take on the longest mob trial in U.S. history, debuted last March, posters for the movie had all the earmarks of a comedy: The star, Vin Diesel, was slumped in a prison cell, wearing a sad sack expression, a rumpled suit and a bad hairpiece.

Now, hoping to woo Oscar voters, two of the producers have come up with another poster that repositions the film as a drama. It shows Diesel looking positively Perry Mason-like in a courtroom. It banners a number of rave reviews, including one from Fox News that says Diesel "seems like he's channeling Karl Malden, Ernest Borgnine and Marlon Brando all at once."


FOR THE RECORD:
'Find Me Guilty': An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about the fledgling Oscar campaign behind "Find Me Guilty" referred to T.J. Mancini as a co-producer on the film. He is a producer. The article also referred to a New York Times review that was critical of the film. The Times published two reviews; the other praised the film and its performances. —


Needless to say, co-producer and co-screenwriter T.J. Mancini and producer Bob DeBrino weren't laughing over the original poster.

"This is not 'Borat.' This is not 'Jackass.' We're not in the comedy category. This is the true story of a hard-edged gangster," Mancini said.

The pair blame "mis-marketing" for the movie's box office demise. The film garnered less than $2 million worldwide.

Because many Academy Award voters probably missed the movie the first time around, the two producers are now mounting an unusual ad hoc Oscar campaign they hope will convince voters to see the film as a drama — not, as Mancini quipped, "The Pacifier Goes to Jail," a reference to last year's hit comedy that also starred the brawny-and-bald action star.

"Find Me Guilty" is based on the true story of Jack DiNorscio, a mobster who defended himself in what would be the longest mafia trial in U.S. history. Although it's a drama, DiNorscio often comes off as a comic in the film, and at one point tries to win over the jury by telling them: "I'm no gangster. I'm a gagster."

These moments were highlighted in the marketing campaign, leading moviegoers to wrongly perceive it as a light comedy, Mancini and DeBrino said.

Such tactics can damage a movie's box office by creating confusion with the audience, said Michael A. Vorhaus, managing director of Frank N. Magid Associates, a Sherman Oaks-based media consumer research and consulting firm that advises studios, exhibitors and TV stations on advertising and testing pilots.

He calls that audience reaction "anticipointment": " 'I anticipated that this was going to be a funny, light movie, and I found out it was a dark comedy or a drama,' " Vorhaus explained, and that leads to disappointment and poor word-of-mouth. Vorhaus, who was not involved with "Find Me Guilty," said studio executives usually resort to this marketing subterfuge if a movie tests poorly and they need to "get everything they can for opening weekend."

Bill Immerman, the chief operating officer of Yari Film Group, which produced and distributed "Find Me Guilty," defended the marketing, saying it was "marketed in the best possible way," but "unfortunately, it didn't do as well as we had hoped.... It certainly didn't live up to our expectations. It got good reviews but for whatever reason it didn't do well at the box office."

Mancini and DeBrino hope to make those reviews the centerpiece of their Oscar campaign. In addition to earning "two thumbs up" on "Ebert & Roeper," the New York Observer called the film Lumet's "supreme achievement" in a career spanning almost half a century and the Chicago Tribune said the film was "well-crafted." (Not everyone loved it, though. Variety, for instance, said that the "dicey prosthetics and wig work" might alienate those who prefer Diesel "buff 'n' bald," and the New York Times called the film a "tedious slog through months of courtroom proceedings.")

The film has been screened twice for academy members and more are scheduled, but Mancini and DeBrino said that's not enough given the reality of today's awards season — studios run their high-octane Oscar campaigns like U.S. presidential elections with sizable campaign coffers, savvy consultants and plenty of advertising.

As an indie film that cost only $11 million to produce, "Find Me Guilty" will be lucky if it can muster enough screeners for academy voters and members of various Hollywood talent guilds to watch this awards season. Mancini figures they will need at least 10,000 copies, which would cost about $65,000 for the DVDs and mailings.

They hope Oscar voters will consider the film for best picture, Diesel for best actor and Lumet for best director, along with actors Peter Dinklage, Ron Silver, Alex Rocco and Annabella Sciorra for their supporting roles. Lumet, Mancini and Robert McCrea are the credited screenwriters.

"The academy alone has 6,000 members," Mancini said. "The Producers Guild has 3,000. Then you've got the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild, the Golden Globes. A real campaign costs hundreds of thousands of dollars because you've got publicists, big, full-page ads [in newspapers and magazines] and all of that. We don't have any of that.... It's like the elections in the United States. You can have the greatest candidate in the world, but if no one finds out about him, what good is it? This may be the greatest movie you never saw."

The pair said they were going to friends and family for money to campaign for the independent film, and criticized the Yari Film Group for not already agreeing to foot the bill for the screeners.

For its part, the Yari Film Group has yet to decide its overall Oscar campaign plans, but Immerman noted that "if [Mancini and DeBrino] are willing to pay for 6,000 screeners to go to academy members, that is something we would certainly consider. But that request has not come across my desk."

The Yari Film Group, however, has already drawn the line at sending screeners to members of the Producers Guild of America because of a pending lawsuit over producer credits.

Bob Yari, who financed "Find Me Guilty" and has a producing credit on the film along with Mancini, DeBrino and Robert Greenhut, sued the PGA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences earlier this year, claiming they unlawfully denied him a producer credit on last year's Oscar-winning film "Crash."

"We don't recognize the Producers Guild as having an equitable method of selecting who is entitled to a producer credit," Immerman said.

Even if screeners do become widely available, some wonder whether a movie that came and went at the box office has any chance this awards season.

Frank di Giacomo, a New York advertising executive who brought the real-life mob trial project to Mancini and who receives co-producer credit on the film, said: "My criticism is not with performances or the direction. It was just never marketed properly."

Neither Diesel nor Lumet could be reached for comment, but Di Giacomo said, "I touched bases with [Lumet] a couple of weeks ago and it's his feeling this movie can never recover from that kind of release."

Di Giacomo said he ran into an acquaintance earlier this week who said to him, " 'Frank, when is your movie coming out?' I said, 'It's been out and it's in DVD now.' "

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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  • Face-lift

    A new poster for "Find Me Guilty" features Vin Diesel in a Perry Mason-like pose and snippets of favorable reviews.

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