Adopting a cause

Times Staff Writer

“HELP ‘Bella.’ ”

That’s the message of a recent e-mail imploring fans of “Bella” to do whatever they can to keep the small-budget, family-oriented movie with an anti-abortion story line in theaters during the height of the fiercely competitive holiday moviegoing season.

The PG-13 rated movie, which features a largely Latino cast with a mix of English and Spanish dialogue, tells the story of a New York waitress, played by Tammy Blanchard, who struggles over whether to seek an abortion because of an unplanned pregnancy. She is befriended by the restaurant’s chef (Eduardo Verastegui), a onetime international soccer star who is haunted by a tragedy in his past.

Behind the scenes of the heartwarming indie film is an aggressive grass-roots marketing campaign that began more than a year before the film’s release in October. In the campaign, such unlikely forces as adoption advocates, Latino groups, church leaders, businessmen and an army of folks from various walks of life took up the cause of “Bella” and its pro-adoption theme. Since its Oct. 26 release, “Bella” has grossed nearly $6.8 million in North America. This past weekend, it grossed $426,764 on 435 screens. At its widest, it reached 457 screens. By comparison, the grisly horror film “Saw IV,” which opened the same week as “Bella,” reached nearly 3,200 screens.


But producers fear the intense competition for screens at the holidays could impede their efforts.

“We’re alive, but at any moment we could die,” said Sean Wolfington, one of the film’s producers. “Every week we’re trying to survive because we don’t have ad budgets. Every week there is some type of publicity that helps us survive.”

The film’s box office performance shows it has a following, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking firm Media by Numbers, who noted: “A lot of these smaller films are lucky to get to $1 million or $2 million. This movie has had a little bit of a groundswell and risen above what sometimes these smaller films are able to do.”

The film has yet to open in Mexico, where one of the lead actors and the director are from. Singer and actor Verastegui, 33, starred in five highly rated “telenovelas” or soap operas (his biggest soap was “Sonadoras”) in Mexico before making “Bella.”

Several years ago, he abandoned his career track determined to make films that do not exploit media stereotypes of Latino men as gangbangers, bandidos and Latin lovers. “My goal is to elevate and heal and respect the dignity of Latinos in the media,” the Antonio Banderas look-alike said in a recent phone interview. Because of “Bella,” he was invited to the White House last month to deliver the keynote speech as part of National Adoption Day, despite the fact, if the truth be known, that he knew next to nothing about the issue when he began the film.

Writer-director Alejandro Monteverde came to the U.S. in 1994 with no money and speaking no English, found work as a dishwasher and later entered film school at the University of Texas at Austin. He said he made short films by selling his car, abandoning his apartment and sleeping on a couch in the university’s campus mail room. “Bella” is his first feature-length movie.

Today, the 30-year-old filmmaker finds himself courted by powerful elites. Earlier this year, First Lady Laura Bush invited him to stand with her as President Bush delivered the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. Monteverde shaved his beard for the occa- sion and was so clean-cut that friends say they didn’t recognize him.

Both men marvel at the doors their little film has opened for them. As an aside, Monteverde noted that Ali Landry, who appears in the film and was a 1996 Miss USA contestant, is now his wife.

“My father told me, ‘Guys, even if you don’t sell one ticket, what a ride!’ ” said Verastegui.

Genesis of an idea

The film is based on an original screenplay that Monteverde co-wrote with Patrick Million and Leo Severino.

Monteverde said he got the idea for “Bella” during two days driving from Austin to Los Angeles. “It was born in my head,” he said. ". . . I wanted to make a love story,” he added, stressing that it was never their intension to make a political movie. “We didn’t want to make a film that would be put in a political box.”

Severino, Verastegui, Monteverde, Denise Pinckley and Sean Wolfington produced the film. Florida businessman Wolfington, along with his uncle, executive producer J. Eustace Wolfington, financed the movie to the tune of $3 million. The filmmakers, the Wolfingtons and Severino have formed a production company called Metanoia Films.

Monteverde said they entered the film at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival hoping that if it was accepted they could use it on their advertising posters. The film not only was accepted, it walked off with the festival’s coveted audience award.

At that point, the filmmakers were feeling so high they thought it would be a cinch to land a distributor -- but they were wrong. All studios passed, claiming they didn’t know how to market it.

“Despite not being able to get a distributor, we had all these people raving about the movie,” Sean Wolfington recalled. “We were at a crossroads. Were we just going to go on and lick our wounds or invest more? Did we believe in ‘Bella’? Obviously, we chose the latter.”

Although they knew next to nothing about marketing movies, they devised a strategy to screen the film whenever and wherever possible, dispatching the cast and director for question-and-answer sessions. “We targeted the top 25 markets,” Sean Wolfington said, seeking out leaders of adoption, Latino and faith-based groups.

At the end of each screening, refreshments were served, and surveys were passed out asking audience members if they would volunteer to help promote the movie -- not just by word of mouth, but by pre-purchasing tickets or buying out an entire theater for specific showtimes? Close to 500 people agreed to “adopt-a-theater.”

The surveys asked people for their names, addresses and even credit card information. Later, “Bella” marketing teams, often manned by interns, would call back the people to remind them of their commitments and assist them, if necessary, in purchasing tickets or booking a theater.

At the height of the campaign, as many as 50 interns worked the phones. The teams were based in Florida, L.A. and Washington, D.C.

In some cases, Sean Wolfington said, the people they reached out to were owners of media outlets in their local communities. “Some owned TV stations, or radio stations, or magazines. . . . We would list all the ways they could volunteer to promote the film. . . . Before ‘Bella’ opened, a lot of these leaders were committed to giving ‘Bella’ coverage.”

Organizations and individuals were also asked to supply the filmmakers with their e-mail databases so that the “Bella” team could reach millions of Americans who had not heard of the movie.

Wolfington said Goya Foods, a family-owned manufacturer and distributor of Latin American food, sponsored premieres in New York and Miami and also purchased $100,000 worth of tickets for the first three weekends, passing tickets out along with T-shirts. He said a girl in Miami used her life savings, along with a birthday gift from her dad, to book a theater. “She gave the tickets to everybody in her church.”

One of the film’s biggest backers was the National Council for Adoption. The organization not only gave the producers the idea for the film’s “adopt-a-theater” campaign, but also provided a bridge to members of Congress.

Monteverde said the film eventually came to the attention of Columba Bush, the wife of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother.

“His wife is Mexican,” Monteverde said. “She saw the film and loved it and invited Jeb to one of the screenings.”

Columba Bush, who sits on the Smithsonian National Latino Advisory Council, was instrumental in getting the filmmakers honored at the Smithsonian Latino Center, Wolfington said.

A White House immigration official then called to notify Monteverde that he had been named a recipient of the 2007 Outstanding American by Choice award, which is given annually to immigrants who have a positive influence on the country.

“Six months after becoming an American citizen and he’s going to the White House to get this award,” Wolfington said. “It was crazy. We laughed. We still can’t believe it.”

Broad appeal

And it wasn’t only Republicans who wanted to see the movie. Many Democrats too attended screenings.

“The film is bipartisan,” Monteverde said.

Fans of the film were coming out of the woodwork. Singer Tony Bennett attended the premiere and unexpectedly walked on stage, took the microphone out of Verastegui’s hand, and praised the movie. “I said to myself, ‘I hope this is not a dream,’ ” the actor recalled.

Although the mainstream news media have largely ignored the movie, fate -- and conservative media -- have played a hand in its promotion. Wolfington said a buddy of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly told the commentator about the film and Verastegui was booked onto the show. The actor also appeared on Neil Cavuto’s program on Fox. Political columnist Bob Novak wrote an appreciative article. Catholic groups such as the Knights of Columbus got behind the film, as did Rick Warren, author of the bestselling book “The Purpose Driven Life.”

“It was a perfect storm of all these people saying this is more than just a movie -- it has importance and meaning beyond being just a movie,” said Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, the film’s distributor.

Roadside Attractions came on board as distributor early this summer. Cohen said the 4-year-old company, which has released such films as “Super Size Me” and “Ladies in Lavender,” looks for films that “have something positive to say and are entertaining.” Along with the filmmakers’ grass-roots campaign, Roadside Attractions used its own contacts in the faith-based media-public relations world to work on building support.

“We opened it in 30 markets,” Cohen said, in smaller cities like Knoxville, Tenn., and Montgomery, Ala., where they figured the movie would play better than L.A. and New York.

“One of the questions we had was, we weren’t sure about the reviews we would get. We did not get great reviews, but Roger Ebert loved it. . . . There were five or six major reviews that were positive and a lot that were not.” He said a few critics apparently believed the film had an anti-abortion political message, which he emphatically denies. Cohen said polling data showed that two-thirds of the people who saw the film on opening weekend were not frequent moviegoers. “The grass roots worked. They were definitely reaching people who are not typical Hollywood moviegoers.”

But beyond box office, the filmmakers say they have been amazed at the number of people who have come up to them after seeing the movie and expressing interest in adopting children.

“If we don’t sell one more ticket,” Verastegui said, “if one person changes his or her life forever, then it’s all worth it.”