Mickey lives: Grisham, Wilson try "big fat" release

It's the bottom of the ninth, and they're gonna bunt!

After two years of seeking a big studio distribution deal, filmmakers John Grisham and Hugh Wilson have begun resorting to guerrilla marketing tactics for their kids' baseball movie.

They've begun screening Mickey for small groups, such as an early-July gathering of Little Leaguers who served as extras during filming in Pennsylvania. Other segments were shot in Richmond and here in Albemarle at Cove Creek Park.

And while the duo has struck out with major studios, Wilson says they recently inked a deal with a tiny L.A.-based film distributor.

"The plan is to open it in six cities, and if it's successful, go wide," says Wilson.

Younger filmgoers may not remember the days when gradual releases were the norm– even for big-budget pictures. Until Jaws, that is. The 1975 man v. shark classic has been widely credited for rewriting Tinseltown playbooks by buying national advertising and opening in hundreds of theaters instead of just in New York and L.A.

"Before the summer of 1975, Hollywood studios traditionally did not advertise their movies on network television," says a story broadcast on PBS Frontline. "It was simply too expensive."

Now ad budgets often exceed production budgets. And as the stakes rise, so does the risk of catastrophic failure.

"The first weekend didn't matter as much," recalls Charlottesville-based independent producer Barry Sisson. "Now, if it doesn't do well the first weekend, they'll pull your film."

Sisson says his first film, The Station Agent, which won two awards at the Sundance Festival in January, will be released this fall in a few test cities under the wing of Miramax, the indie-ish studio owned by Disney.

As for Mickey, says Sisson, "I can't believe it never got sold. I haven't seen it, but I bet it's good. Those are talented guys."

Wilson, after all, is a Hollywood veteran who directed the original Police Academy, as well as First Wives Club, Guarding Tess, and Blast from the Past– and he created the classic '70s sitcom, WKRP in Cincinnati.

Like Wilson, Grisham is an Albemarle resident whose name usually means Hollywood gold. Although his novels led the way to such box office smashes as The Firm and The Pelican Brief, Mickey is said to be the prolific novelist's first screenplay.

But this World Series story has had some world-class problems. Chief among them is a Little League scandal that erupted at the close of filming.

In August 2001, Sports Illustrated revealed that the father of Danny Almonte, then the pitcher for the real-life Bronx Baby Bombers, probably lied about his son's age. Mickey's feel-good plot involves a dad on the run from the IRS who fakes his son's age so they can have extra time together– and extra time in the Little League.

While Wilson has steadfastly denied any connection between the Bronx scandal and his buddy Grisham's storyline, studio executives could be forgiven if they found Mickey's feel-good spin on age deception just a little too close for comfort to the real story.

It wouldn't be the first time current events have created Hollywood havoc. After 9/11, several films– Big Trouble, Sidewalks of New York, and Collateral Damage– were delayed. Men In Black 2 and Spiderman, both of which had significant World Trade Center footage, had scenes re-shot. More recently, last fall's sniper attacks reportedly delayed Phone Booth.

Grisham and Wilson aren't the only high-profile Albemarle artists to see their film work gather dust. As detailed in a Hook cover story ["Missing movies," September 19, 2002], the film debut of rock star Dave Matthews was long delayed by bankruptcy, lawsuits, and the impending puberty of its teen-aged star. That kids' film, Where the Red Fern Grows, has, however, recently emerged complete with a tear-jerking premiere May 3 at New York's Tribeca Film Festival. More recently, claims a source with its producer, Crusader Entertainment, "Universal is screening it as we speak, but we haven't made a deal yet. We're shopping for the best deal."

When Wilson and Grisham announced two years ago that they were making and financing their own film, top studios took notice. Now, their mordant movie has wound up with a tiny new film company called MAC Releasing. The little distributor, only a year old, was apparently named for the first names of the principals: Mike Marcus, Andy Gruenberg, and Craig Baumgarten.

"They are guys who used to be at United Artists, and I knew them there," says Wilson. While MAC has yet to build a blockbuster, its current release, Washington Heights, has earned critical praise after opening on just two screens in June and July.

This strategy is what the film industry calls a "platform release," most famously employed last year by My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the shoestring-budget comedy that went on to gross over $250 million.

Wilson says the "slow pitch" suits his nerves better than today's wide release that always creates white knuckles– and perhaps a few tears.

"Now they open in 2,000 theaters," says Wilson, "and they know by 8:30 Friday night how it's gonna do. It makes grown men cry."

What if the platform release doesn't work for Mickey? "Sell it to HBO," says Wilson. "I think it will be out next spring," he predicts. "I think kids will like it, but I think teenagers prefer Eminem."

Read more on: john grisham