In late April, Warner Bros. released filmmaker Carroll Ballard's
African adventure story "Duma" about a boy and his cheetah. You've
probably never heard of it. That's because it was only shown in three
cities - Sacramento, Phoenix and San Antonio.
Warners spent $2 million on television and print advertising to
promote the movie.
"If you don't have a million of what I call 'whammo' scenes, which
means you can't go five seconds between somebody getting whammoed,
studios don't think kids will like it," says Ballard, best-known for
directing the 1979 family classic "The Black Stallion." "Personally, I
think children are a lot more observant and adaptable."
Which leads to a larger question: Can a family movie without a name
star and cartoonlike violence get a fair shake in today's marketplace?
Ballard's beliefs that children will come to such a film are being put
to the test with "Duma," only his fourth feature in the quarter
century since making "The Black Stallion."
When Warners pulled "Duma" after its test run, that would have
probably been that. But Los Angeles-based film critic Scott Foundas,
on assignment from Variety, saw Duma at the Giffoni Hollywood Film
Festival, an event spotlighting family films. Foundas' rave review ran
May 2, and Warner Bros. executives decided to give the movie another
- albeit small - chance.
The $12 million-budgeted "Duma," which Warner Bros. co-financed with
Gaylord Films, opened this weekend in five Chicago theaters. If it
does well, it will expand to other cities, including Los Angeles, says
Dan Fellman, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution.
"This has been a tough one to market," producer Hunt Lowery says. "I
know Carroll is frustrated. It would be easier for him if this was out
in 2,000 or 3,000 theaters. But nobody at the studio wants to see it
Ballard differs, saying, "Most of the people at Warner Bros. would
just like to bury the movie and forget about it." Ballard's biggest
gripe was with the studio's initial marketing campaign, which featured
a cartoonish image of a boy's feet dangling from a tree branch
alongside a cheetah's tail. The tagline read: "Some friendships are
wilder than others."
"I hated it," Ballard, 67, says. "I thought it harkened back to a
million kiddie animal movies that I don't want to see anymore. The
same thing happened with my last picture, 'Fly Away Home.' It was all
cutesy stuff, namby-pamby images for a highly charged film. It didn't
work, so I've been yelling and screaming at Warner Bros. from the
get-go. 'Don't make the same mistake.' I might as well have saved my
Fellman admits that "we did learn some things" during the movie's
April test release. This weekend's Chicago run features a different,
edgier advertising campaign that included laudatory quotes from
several film critics. (Chicago critic Roger Ebert has given it a
"The reality is, there are films that are easy to market, and there
are some that take a lot more energy and effort," Fellman says.
"Carroll's movies have never been big, wide, 2,000- screen films. So
our objective has been to try to find a campaign that reaches the
widest possible audience. We went out small because it's much more
prudent to test the water before you press the button on a particular
The larger reality is that movies like "Duma" have been an endangered
species for some time because marketing departments at the major
studios simply aren't designed to release small movies. (Alfonso
Cuaron's acclaimed 1995 movie, "A Little Princess," one of the
best-reviewed movies of that year, suffered a similar struggle finding
Family films lacking a name star - think Ice Cube in "Are We There
Yet?" or Vin Diesel in "The Pacifier" - also lack the hook marketers
seem to need to sell the movie.
"If a studio can't spend at least $20 million on a marketing campaign,
they simply don't know what to do," says Tom Shone, author of
"Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the
Summer." "They need stars, they need high concepts. They need a
Adds David Poland, who runs Internet sites Movie City News and The Hot
Button: "It's easy to complain about Warner Bros. doing this little
movie wrong, but these big companies are geared to releasing and
selling big movies. Disney is the only studio that could probably sell
'Duma' because it has a brand name. Families trust them."
"Duma" isn't the only good family-oriented movie facing a bleak
future. 20th Century Fox has a wonderful coming-of-age story called
"Little Manhattan" on the books for late September. But as of now, the
film, which tells the story of a 10-year-old boy's love for an older
woman (don't worry, she's 11), will debut exclusively on its home
turf, New York. Its outlook after that will depend on its opening
"It has zero chance," Poland says. " 'Duma' at least has the fact that
it's an animal movie for kids. A movie like 'Little Manhattan,' no
matter how good it is, needs a star to be sellable."
Which is a shame because "Little Manhattan" plays like a great date
movie, funnier and more heartfelt than pap like "Must Love Dogs."
"Duma," likewise, is a winner, a charming, honest adventure story that
sports the beautifully photographed epic landscapes that are a
hallmark of Ballard's work. Like all great family movies, "Duma"
engages the imagination without pandering, making it solid
entertainment for all ages.
"Duma" isn't the first movie Ballard has had to fight for. "The Black
Stallion" got caught in a regime change at United Artists 25 years ago
when Mike Medavoy left to start Orion. Initially, the new studio heads
didn't want to release the movie. Francis Ford Coppola, who knew
Ballard from their days at UCLA, convinced UA to show "The Black
Stallion" at the New York Film Festival. It subsequently opened in one
New York theater, where solid business and strong word of mouth turned
it into a big hit.
"I've been told 50 times that it wouldn't make a dime in today's
market," Ballard says. "It used to be that if you made a good film
that really worked on a lot of levels, that was the most important
thing. Now you've got to sell people with a sound bite. There's no
time for people to discover movies anymore."
Personal note: I love movies like this, I loved The Black Stallion, and Fly Away Home. Then you have films like Two Brothers, Cheetah, Milo and Otis, all films with same theme that I love. I am one veiwer in a millon, but it goes to show you that people do still enjoy these types of films. In fact, I think I will write to the director and thank him for his work and let him know there are still people in world who enjoy these kinds of films.