Nancy Utley remembers sitting in a theater at last year's Sundance Film Festival and thinking, "This is a little gem."
What the chief operating officer of Fox Searchlight didn't realize when her studio purchased Little Miss Sunshine
was that the quirky road trip comedy starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Abigail Breslin would become not only a box-office success but also an awards powerhouse.
"We were just hoping to get it into theaters," she says, phoning from this year's Sundance festival. "This is nothing we saw coming."
A day after nabbing four Academy Award nominations — best picture, original screenplay, supporting actor (Alan Arkin) and supporting actress (Abigail Breslin) —Sunshine
isn't so small anymore.
The $8 million story about a dysfunctional family racing to a beauty pageant has taken in $60 million in the USA. It was a surprise winner at the Producers Guild Awards, which are considered a canny barometer of the Oscar race. And many consider it the art-house favorite of the academy, much like Crash
was when it took best picture last year.
But how did Sunshine
get from sleeper summer hit to awards contender? It was a low-key marketing approach.
Instead of spending millions on "for your consideration" ads in movie trade publications, Fox spent most of its money mailing more than 100,000 copies of the DVD to critics, entertainment writers and awards voters.
"People don't want movies forced down their throat," Utley says. "They want to discover it. They don't want to be told what to think about it."
The key, of course, is having the goods, says Paul Dergarabedian of industry tracker Media By Numbers.
"It's one of those films that resonates because it's about family and relationships, and everyone can relate on some level," he says. "When a movie creates a bond between itself and the moviegoer, you want to tell people about it."