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The Secret Lives of Cheetahs 

Despite critical raves, Carroll Ballard’s Duma may go quietly into the night

Thursday, Aug 25 2005
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Photo by David Bloomer Unless you live in Chicago, the chances of your seeing a wonderfully grown-up new children’s film in a movie theater anytime soon are looking slender. Duma, a drama of uncommon beauty and emotional resonance about a South African boy’s journey to return his pet cheetah to its natural habitat, tested dismally at screenings in Sacramento, Phoenix and San Antonio, prompting distributor Warner Bros. to consider shelving the movie. Until, that is, my intrepid colleague Scott Foundas slipped into a screening at a children’s film festival last April and gave Duma a rapturous review in Variety, which opened the door for other critics to see and fall in love with the picture. Still, none of this would have rated much with Warner had Roger Ebert not also seen and liked Duma, with the result that the studio agreed to open the movie in five theaters in Chicago. Sadly, it performed only modestly during its first-weekend-of-August opening, earning slightly less than $6,000 per screen. Despite the disappointing numbers, Warner’s head of theatrical distribution, Dan Fellman, told me, the studio was deferring judgment until after the second-weekend grosses. Depending on whom you talk to, Duma is another casualty either of risk-averse corporate movie marketing or of a crass new generation of young audiences fed and watered on special-effects pizzazz, for whom live wild animals are sissy stuff, and with whom an aging body of film critics is increasingly out of touch. Jeff Dowd, a producer’s rep with years of experience marketing small movies who was instrumental in setting up a critics’ screening of Duma in July, paraphrases Aldous Huxley: “The truth lies at both extremes.”

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To Duma’s disconsolate director, Carroll Ballard, the movie’s likely fate brings back more than one painful memory. When his wonderful goose movie, Fly Away Home, was released to tepid box office in 1996, the critics stepped up for it almost unanimously (as they had for Alfonso Cuarón’s lovely A Little Princess a year earlier, which was re-released to no avail). Columbia Pictures, too, gave Fly Away Home a second release, and it did no better. Ballard’s 1979 first feature, The Black Stallion, only saw the light of day through the efforts of his college classmate and producer, Francis Ford Coppola, who managed to persuade a skittish United Artists to release it. It’s the only Ballard movie that has made any significant money.It’s possible that Ballard is an independent director trapped in a studio system that relies on increasingly segmented marketing strategies that have rendered the notion of a general audience obsolete. Yet, though his movies don’t cost much (Duma came in under its $12 million budget), they all have the epic sweep one associates with big-studio family pictures from way back, like Old Yeller.As with all Ballard’s films — even his one movie for adults, Wind, which also bombed — Duma is shot on a ravishing canvas. Set in the high desert of South Africa, the movie, which is based on photographer Carol Cawthra Hopcraft’s memoir of farm life with her young son, is powered by a love of nature at once rhapsodic and unsentimental. Campbell Scott and Hope Davis (last seen together in The Secret Lives of Dentists) are terrific as the cancer-ridden dad and grieving mom to Xan (played by Alex Michaeletos, a bright-faced lad who sleeps with two cheetahs of his own), who teams up with an ambiguously motivated tribesman (wittily rendered by British actor Eamonn Walker) to return the cheetah to his home in the wild. The journey is as rigorous and emotionally risky as it is lushly scenic and animated by a pure love of motion, whether running, flying or racing across the sands in a homemade dune buggy. Ballard is fearless in his trust of children to absorb serious adversity, including the weaknesses and betrayals of adults. Like The Black Stallion and Fly Away Home, Duma makes a fiercely impassioned case for treating wild animals as friends and allies, but not as pets. And though the four cheetahs used in the making of the movie are handsome and graceful, they’re hardly Disney-cute critters.The movie has no big stars and few special effects, which may be why it has been so hard to entice children reared on both into test screenings. Speaking from his home deep in the woods 100 miles north of San Francisco, Ballard concedes as much. “Maybe I’m just getting old,” says the 67-year-old director. “Maybe the world has changed so much I can’t comprehend it anymore. And there have been so many children’s animal pictures over the years that have followed the same formula, and the audience is sick and tired of it. The hot subject now is being cool, whatever that means, and kind of cynical.” In making Duma, Ballard reluctantly had to agree, as he did with Fly Away Home, to build the plot around an obligatory dying parent, a staple of the animal-as-best-friend formula movie that he scorns. Ballard loathes all things cute or mawkish, and he blames Warner Bros. for what he sees as a misguided and niggardly marketing campaign. “How can you talk about this picture in the millisecond that you have, so that people don’t get the impression that this is kind of Flipper with a cat, or Lassie with a cat? Warner didn’t allow any national reviewers to see the film. My interpretation is that they just wanted to get it out there so it could go on to DVD, they wouldn’t have to risk anything more, and they’d get their money back and move on.” Old master: Ballard on the Duma setPhoto by David Bloomer Ballard’s frustration is understandable. Though it was hard to entice families into the test screenings on the basis of the ads, which, Ballard complains, implied that Duma was a “cute kitty movie,” once they were there, they gave the film an enthusiastic response: The movie did especially well among older children and adults. In fact, according to Dowd, Fellman and John Wells, the film’s producer, Warner Bros. put considerable money, effort and patience into promoting the film in test markets. “We spent a huge amount of money on television advertising,” says Fellman, who loves the movie and calls Ballard a genius. “This is far from over. We didn’t walk away from it, and we’re still not.” Duma’s second-week box-office take, helped no doubt by two supportive notices from Ebert, was up an encouraging 8 percent over its first week. As I write, though, the movie’s future remains uncertain, despite a gathering storm of critical support. Unless Duma picks up enough word of mouth in Chicago to improve its box-office take substantially, its future in movie theaters is very uncertain, despite a gathering storm of critical support. “Knowing what we know now,” says Wells, adding that it’s easy to be wise with hindsight, “I’d have argued for a different campaign, opening the movie in Los Angeles and New York, supported by national reviews and word of mouth.”Does Duma need to turn a profit? For all the chatter about a slump in movie attendance, and the red ink generated by Time Warner’s settlement litigation in its disastrous partnership with AOL, in the last few weeks Warner Bros. has cleaned up at the box office with The Dukes of Hazzard, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Must Love Dogs, Time Warner subsidiary New Line’s The Wedding Crashers, and Warner Independent’s surprise hit, March of the Penguins. When I put it to Fellman that the studio has little to lose from releasing a movie that cost so little to make, half of it put up by partner Gaylord Films, he gives me the old we’re-a-business routine. On his own terms, he’s right — except that when you’re making culture rather than widgets, you may have special obligations.In the end, how movies do at the box office remains a mystery. And there are, it’s true, some happy confluences of commerce and quality: Warner’s very fine 2000 boy-and-his-dog drama My Dog Skip, based on the memoirs of writer and editor Willie Morris, is one. And as it happens, The Black Stallion has picked up recently in DVD sales, a sign that even films that are only modest successes in theaters can have a flourishing afterlife on DVD. Ballard is not complaining, but the royalty checks are poor consolation for a lifetime of frustration and compromise. “I’m not a very good salesman,” he says ruefully. “I’m not a terribly magnetic person, and as a result almost every picture I’ve made has been one that somebody else has wanted me to make. I love to make films, it’s what I love to do. But of the 50 years I’ve been trying to make films, I’ve actually only made them in five of those years. The rest of the time has been preparing projects that never saw the light of day.”Wells, who has struggled many times to bring small quality films to a wide audience, admits that under current marketing conditions there is fierce competition for the family audience, which is inundated with whiz-bang CGI fare. “Our frustration is that we get criticized for not making more of these films,” he says. “And when we do, people don’t come and see them.” Wells is right that it’s up to parents to be more discriminating about what their kids see in theaters or on DVD. Some of the special-effects movies — like the Shrek movies, Chicken Run, Finding Nemo, The Iron Giant — are terrific. But filmmakers like Ballard offer kids and their elders a different moviegoing experience, one to which they come not just to get (over) stimulated but to imagine other lives than their own — one of cinema’s greatest gifts. As this article was going to press, it was announced that Warner Bros. will release Duma in 40 Los Angeles area theaters on Friday, September 30.
Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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