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Word of Mouth: Disney’s betting on ‘Secretariat’

It’s a movie about a winning horse. It’s a movie about a winsome housewife. Did we mention it’s inspirational too, and maybe even spiritual?

In marketing “Secretariat,” Disney is trying an array of strategies to attract moviegoers who so far have not shown a lot of interest in seeing the horse racing drama that opens Friday.

Directed by the writer of “Braveheart” and produced by the team behind the sports movies “The Rookie,” “Invincible” and “Miracle,” the modestly budgeted film about the Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred has been singled out by Disney’s new management as the kind of feel-good production it wants to make going forward. But like the chestnut colt’s come-from-behind win in 1973’s Kentucky Derby, the movie might have to rally from a sluggish start out of the theatrical gate, as audience tracking surveys indicate “Secretariat” could premiere behind Warner Bros.’ romantic dramedy “Life as We Know It” and perhaps even trail the second weekend of Sony Pictures’ “The Social Network.”

Even if critics are not going to give “Secretariat” four-star reviews, as early notices have been mixed, Disney believes that the film has enormous audience appeal and that it will benefit from strong word of mouth. In addition to holding hundreds of sneak previews last weekend, Disney has screened “Secretariat” more than 250 times nationwide at military bases, large churches and elsewhere. The studio has used social media such as Facebook and Twitter to court niche audiences. Disney recently held a screening for the polo-playing set in the Hamptons.

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“Obviously, we want to play to a really broad, four-quadrant audience,” said Sean Bailey, Disney’s new production president. “We’re doing an aggressive prescreening campaign. We believe the movie is its own best advocate.”

While the horse plays a central role in the movie, which was directed by Wallace and written by Mike Rich, “Secretariat” ultimately focuses on Penny Chenery, a Denver mother of four who against some family members’ wishes took over her late father’s Meadow Farm stable and bred and raced Secretariat. “Big Red,” as the horse was popularly known, not only became the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown and also set records in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes that still stand today.

While the shift isn’t too obvious, Disney’s marketing push has changed since the studio started promoting “Secretariat” in late spring. The film’s initial trailer in April opened with Chenery (played by Diane Lane) talking about her horse’s running. “In frenzied excitement, he eats up the ground. He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength, and charges into the fray, afraid of nothing.” Likewise, the film’s outdoor campaign and poster focused on the horse; they could have been mistaken for spots for the Oak Tree meeting at Hollywood Park.

In recent weeks, however, the sales pitch has tilted more toward Chenery and the people behind the thoroughbred, including her family. A featurette that debuted Sept. 3 includes footage of Wallace saying, “The story of ‘Secretariat’ is a story about the hero inside each of us.” Later in the new advertisement, Wallace, who also directed “We Were Soldiers” and “The Man in the Iron Mask,” says: “Life is about finding how far you can go — how fast you can run.”

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Even though Secretariat was scarcely an underdog — the horse was the betting favorite in all but one of his 21 races, Disney’s new spot emphasizes Chenery’s personal long-shot odds. “I don’t care how many times they tell us we can’t do it,” the featurette shows Chenery saying. “I am not giving up!”

In a way, the studio is positioning “Secretariat” as this year’s “The Blind Side,” except that the hero wears a bridle instead of a helmet.

Rich Ross, who is marking his first year as Disney’s studio chief, said: “Now more than ever, people are looking for something to inspire them. And I think Randall unapologetically commits to that ethos. He could have told many stories, but he told this story.”

The studio has held several screenings for the military, including taking “Secretariat” to Ft. Hood in Killeen, Texas. “It was 115 degrees,” Bailey said. “We went to the biggest theater on the base. What I loved about it was that it was not at all a fancy screening. It was just men and women, our troops, wives and husbands and folks on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan or elsewhere. The way this movie plays, the emotions it elicits from people, it was a special night.”

Some of those emotions are tied to the film’s spiritual message: In addition to quoting some Biblical verses, “Secretariat” employs the gospel song “Oh Happy Day.” Disney has hired the marketing firm Different Drummer to help reach faith-based audiences on a grassroots level. If church groups turn out in force for “Secretariat,” their attendance could make the $35-million production highly profitable.

Wallace, a former seminary student who speaks with the persuasiveness of a preacher, said he was partially drawn to the Secretariat story because of how it spoke to his understanding of faith.

“I never did want the movie to be about a given dogma,” the director said. “But I wanted a sense with each character that they were looking for some experience of the sacred…. I want to know what you love enough to give your life for. Because the question isn’t, ‘Is there life after death?’ The question we all really need to ask is, ‘Is there life after birth?’”

john.horn@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Dawn Chmielewski contributed to this report.


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