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‘Crazy Heart’ beats strong for Fox Searchlight

The movie business is full of as many comeback stories as there are “Rocky” sequels, and Fox Searchlight is heading into the holiday season with two of the year’s more compelling tales of redemption: the country music drama “Crazy Heart” and the fortunes of the studio itself.

Fox Searchlight has experienced more 2009 highs and lows than a bungee jumper. After sweeping February’s Academy Awards with “Slumdog Millionaire” and releasing the year’s early triumphs “Notorious” and "(500) Days of Summer,” the art-house division of 20th Century Fox suffered through a bleak fall and winter. Despite great reviews, “Whip It” skated off the rails, “Gentlemen Broncos” (domestic gross: $113,000) was bucked from theaters in minutes and “Amelia” fared about as well as pilot Earhart’s final flight.

The future looks much brighter with “Crazy Heart,” which is opening Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles. But the excitement surrounding the Jeff Bridges music movie isn’t limited to its critical and commercial potential. It’s also that the film has even made it to theaters.

First-time filmmaker Scott Cooper’s rise-from-the-ashes narrative is straightforward enough: A fading booze-addicted crooner (imagine an amalgam of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson) tries to find creative purpose and personal connections in his increasingly disorderly life.

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For all of the recognizable, root-for-the-underdog beats in Cooper’s adaptation of Thomas Cobb’s novel, Hollywood initially reacted as if the movie couldn’t be more uncommercial. When the filmmaker and his agents at International Creative Management made the Hollywood rounds several years ago looking for money to make the movie, it didn’t matter to prospective partners that Bridges was set to star alongside Robert Duvall. Cooper’s collaboration with musician T Bone Burnett (“Cold Mountain,” “Walk the Line,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) as the film’s composer and producer was equally unimpressive.

“It’s dark, it’s character-based and it’s challenging,” the 39-year-old Cooper, who’s also a character actor (“Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”), says of the typical rejection excuses he received. It doesn’t help, either, that studio executives consider country music unappealing, the playlist on someone else’s iPod.

After the studios and their specialty divisions all passed on the project, ICM finally set up the movie at Country Music Television, a cable and satellite channel that’s part of Viacom’s MTV Networks and was a newcomer to feature films.

Not only was CMT willing to let Cooper direct the movie, but it also paid out more than $7 million to finance it. The plan was that Viacom’s specialty film division, Paramount Vantage, would release “Crazy Heart” sometime this year. “But as I was finishing editing, Paramount Vantage was disintegrating,” Cooper says.

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With Paramount Vantage, like so many other distributors of highbrow drama, in ashes, “Crazy Heart’s” prospects looked a bit like those of “Slumdog Millionaire” when its financier and distributor (Warner Independent Pictures) closed shop in 2008 just as director Danny Boyle was wrapping production.

That’s not the only “Slumdog Millionaire” comparison: For a while, it looked like “Crazy Heart” was just a few days from a direct-to-video premiere.

ICM Chairman Jeff Berg petitioned Viacom’s most senior executives to let the film go. It was a tough pill for them to swallow: Viacom would probably be selling the film for far less than it spent to make it, and sending it to one of its rival distributors. But Viacom finally relented and showed the film to buyers in June.

Just as Fox Searchlight stepped in and took “Slumdog Millionaire” from Warner Independent, the studio bought “Crazy Heart’s” worldwide rights for about $3 million in the first acquisition deal for new Fox Searchlight heads Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, who in March replaced Peter Rice (who’s now running Fox TV). While Viacom will share in the film’s proceeds, Fox Searchlight stands to reap the most profits if “Crazy Heart” succeeds.

The studio considered taking “Crazy Heart” to January’s Sundance Film Festival with a March 2010 release to follow, but when Bridges was cast in Joel and Ethan Coen’s upcoming remake of “True Grit,” the studio realized the film’s best salesman would either be practicing horseback riding or in production.

If “Crazy Heart” were delayed until late next year, it would then be competing against Bridge’s “Tron Legacy” and “True Grit.” So with very little advertising ready to go, Fox Searchlight in November scheduled the film to open on Wednesday, with four more cities (Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and Phoenix) added Christmas Day, and more markets joining the dance Jan. 8.

The very slow release is designed to let audiences discover that “Crazy Heart” is much more of a movie than a simple synopsis can suggest. “It’s a great American actor playing a great American character,” Gilula says of Bridges’ performance as the alcoholic singer Bad Blake.

The precedent of other country music movies (for every “Walk the Line” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” hit, there’s a “Rhinestone” and “Pure Country” dud) means “Crazy Heart” will need good reviews, strong word of mouth and a slice of " The Blind Side’s” Middle America turnout to make it a breakout winner.

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The very music that was once considered the film’s liability could now become one of its strongest selling points, Utley says. “It’s similar to ‘Once’ in that way,” she says of Fox Searchlight’s surprisingly popular 2006 movie about European folk singers. “The music stays in your head and you can play it over and over.”

It’s something that can’t be said of a lot of recent Fox Searchlight movies.

“ ‘Whip It’ was a devastating experience,” Utley says of the Drew Barrymore film. “That’s a very fine movie. We were just unable to find the audience for it, and I’m not sure why.”

The company’s attempt to lure “Napoleon Dynamite” fans to “Gentleman Broncos” (both were written and directed by Jared Hess) didn’t work; “Amelia,” which Fox Searchlight co-produced, was a financial and creative disaster; and “Adam,” which Fox Searchlight bought at the Sundance Film Festival for $1.5 million, barely grossed that much.

“It’s not the first time that we’ve had a hard time. We took some lumps, and it’s painful and difficult, especially for our filmmakers,” Gilula says.

A little more than a year ago, before “The Secret Life of Bees” and “Slumdog Millionaire” came out, Gilula says, “People said we were dead in the water, and thought we were out of the game. We are fallible, but it’s a cyclical business.”

In addition to “Crazy Heart,” the studio’s promising slate includes Boyle’s “127 Hours” (based on the real-life story of a hiker whose arm is pinned by a boulder) and Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” (likely to star George Clooney).

And for now, the town that once gave Cooper and “Crazy Heart” a cold shoulder is embracing the movie, and Bridges seems certain to be nominated for the lead actor Oscar. Earlier this week, Jamie Foxx (who played Ray Charles in “Ray”) and Reese Witherspoon (June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line”) hosted a tastemaker screening for “Crazy Heart.”

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Cooper knows he’s a lucky man.

“If I were trying to put this film together right now, it wouldn’t get made,” he says. “It’s these little films that almost always get crushed by the competition.”

john.horn@latimes.com


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