Six Yorkshire steelworkers stripping. One Japanese businessman waltzing. And an English queen mourning. It would be hard to assemble a less likely crew to challenge current box office leaders Harrison Ford, Demi Moore, and Steven Seagal. But as the summer’s stars pack up their tents, the art-house films The Full Monty, Shall We Dance?, and Mrs. Brown have utilized stealth campaigns and word of mouth to establish their toeholds. Here’s how they did it:
— Thanks to a last-minute plea from Fox Searchlight president Lindsay Law last Thanksgiving, The Full Monty just barely squeezed into January’s Sundance Film Festival — a fitting showcase, since Law made the deal for the $3 million comedy at the previous year’s gathering. But Fox’s specialty division held off opening the movie until Aug. 13. ”By August, audiences tend to be exhausted [from special-effects movies],” says Law. ”They just want a movie set on earth.” ”What is The Full Monty?” asked a teaser ad, tied to two months of advance screenings promoted by local media in 10 cities. The film, now in about 400 theaters, enjoyed the highest per-screen average (more than $29,000 its opening weekend) of any movie released so far this year.
— Shall We Dance? also played Sundance before Miramax released it on July 11, in the middle of the summer blockbusters. ”In a summer filled with aliens and explosions, it’s about an explosion of the heart,” says Amy Israel, the Miramax exec who acquired the movie. Print ads focusing on dancing feet were designed to emphasize the movie’s mood — and conveniently obscured its Japanese setting. With $5.8 million to date, Shall We Dance? should surpass Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) — which grossed $7 million — as the most successful Japanese import ever.
— After Mrs. Brown‘s premiere at Cannes, Miramax tested the film at screenings for groups such as schoolteachers and decided to release it on July 18. An early ad line, ”Royal watching has never been so much fun,” was retired even before Princess Diana’s death, but that wasn’t the only marketing element that changed: While the film’s original ads featured a dour Dame Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, a revised version showed her laughing it up. With $4.9 million in its coffers at press time, the drama is proving to be a piece of Victoriana that’s far from antique.