LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The young stars of "The Kite Runner" may have been moved to a secret location after receiving death threats, but now the tricky part really begins for the film's distributor: Packaging a foreign-language movie with weighty themes and no stars as a mainstream release.
The DreamWorks production, which is being released through Paramount Vantage, the Afghanistan- and U.S.-set tale opens Friday in limited release before expanding during the coming weeks. And it poses one of the most fraught challenges of any movie this fall as Paramount Pictures' specialty division tries to turn what was an unlikely best-seller about friendship and ethnic strife into a big-screen blockbuster.
Hovering over it is a Vantage release from earlier in the year, "A Mighty Heart," which took on a similar part of the world with more obvious commercial elements (Angelina Jolie and a ubiquitous Mariane Pearl) but earned just $15 million at the box office.
The result has been to make "Kite Runner" a marketing anomaly, with the company taking a grassroots approach that has focused on elements most major rollouts ignore.
It has hosted dozens of screenings for book clubs and in the heartland (literally, in the case of the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis); has embraced an unusual publicity figure in Khaled Hosseini, who wrote the book on which the movie is based; and thrown fundraisers with Afghani expats.
Vantage has embarked on its campaign with a dearth of TV spots and trailers. "The English-language portions of the film don't lend themselves to clips, and the Dari (language) will put some people off, so word-of-mouth is all you have," said one executive with knowledge of the campaign.
Or as an executive at another studio said: "The only thing you can do with a movie like this is screen the hell out of it."
In a way, Vantage was put in this position because of circumstances beyond its control. Eager to avoid the wide release of "Mighty Heart," the company planned a slow burn for the Marc Forster picture, with "Kite Runner" slotted for an early November opening and then carefully rolling out through year's end.
But concerns developed that four of the movie's young Afghani stars could find themselves in danger from the surrounding community because of sexually suggestive elements in the film's plot line. So the company pushed the release back six weeks in order to move the boys out of Afghanistan and set them up with new lives somewhere in the United Arab Emirates.
The result was to put "Kite Runner" into a crowded and awards-crazed December, which forced the movie to jostle against such big-buzz releases as "Sweeney Todd," "Atonement" and even Vantage's own "There Will Be Blood." (The company declined comment for this report.)
The strategy abroad has been almost as tricky, with the company trying a move that some studios, having seen its stars put in danger, might not have attempted: a major unveiling the Arab world. The movie will play the Dubai International Film Festival that begins this weekend.
"Kite Runner" will open in several European and South American countries every week in January and February, culminating in a major release in Turkey at the end of February. Out of safety concerns, Vantage will not release the movie in Afghanistan, though pirated copies will probably abound.