Determined not to become an orphan

Times Staff Writer

It’s never easy building word of mouth even for a crowd-pleasing movie, and the recent travels of “August Rush” producer Richard Barton Lewis prove the point.

Scheduled to attend an “August Rush” screening at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis last month, Lewis first had to make an unscheduled landing in Memphis -- just a little smoke in the plane -- then had to fly past thunderstorms and tornadoes to reach Indiana. His luggage didn’t arrive, forcing Lewis to assemble an outfit in 15 minutes at a Nordstrom on his way to the festival’s opening-night screening.

As soon as the movie ended, though, it was all worth it.

“August Rush” was greeted not only by a standing ovation but also with dozens of grown men openly weeping -- a sight not seen in Indianapolis outside the Colts’ losing two straight games. The Heartland Film Festival gave Lewis its Truly Moving Picture Award, and the producer left the next morning to promote “August Rush” in Europe.


Hollywood’s big studios excel in marketability -- cooking up pre-sold sequels, comic book adaptations and star-laden action epics -- but often come up short in playability, a measure of how much moviegoers actually like a film.

Lewis and Warner Bros. know that, while PG-rated “August Rush” offers no simple selling hooks, early audiences, but not all critics, have embraced the movie enthusiastically. The challenge now is transforming that goodwill into ticket sales during an unbelievably competitive season.

Starring Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as musicians who spend one night together, “August Rush” tells the story of their supposedly orphaned son, called August Rush (Freddie Highmore), and his quest to be reunited with his parents. The movie is filled with original music -- rock, gospel, symphonic -- and culminates with an emotional concert in New York’s Central Park.

“The movie plays through the roof and tests incredibly well,” says Dawn Taubin, Warners’ domestic marketing chief. “But it’s not a movie that jumps in front of everybody -- it’s not something that has a big-event status attached to it.”

Around the time it moved “August Rush” from Oct. 19 into the crowded Thanksgiving weekend (no fewer than five other new films are debuting in wide release), Warners started showing 20 minutes of the film to tastemakers in New York, Toronto, Nashville and Los Angeles. The summer screenings were intended to establish the movie’s musical credentials; when the film was complete, Warner Bros. began courting average moviegoers, especially in Middle America (where, no doubt, the studio is hoping that word of Rhys Meyers’ recent arrest in the Dublin airport on charges of public drunkenness won’t derail those plans).

Warners premiered the film not at some fancy film festival but at Montana’s HATCHfest in early October, where it was greeted with another standing ovation. In addition to Indianapolis, Lewis subsequently took “August Rush” to festivals in Chicago and Dallas. Warners held promotional screenings in more than 70 other cities, and this last weekend held “August Rush” sneak previews across the country.

Like the film’s titular orphan, “August Rush” faces an uncertain future. For families, Disney is pushing its “Enchanted,” and urban audiences will probably check out Sony’s “This Christmas.” Teens are likely to see “Hitman” and “The Mist.”

And that means the real measure of “August Rush’s” success cannot be told in its first weekend, but after New Year’s, when the holiday moviegoing season wraps up.

“The whole plan on the movie is word of mouth: The movie sells itself,” Lewis says. “This is an atypical Warner Bros. picture -- it’s not a huge tentpole movie. But I think we will prove [studio Chairman] Alan Horn’s instincts right.”