Friday, August 20, 2004


How about make $15.9 million and counting, gosh!

If those lines mean nothing to you, you've yet to meet Napoleon Dynamite, the unlikely character behind summer's sleeper hit. The $400,000 Sundance hit has been lurking around theaters since June, luring teens and young adults to the story of an Everydork trying to make it through high school in Preston, Idaho.

The film, starring newcomers Jon Heder, Aaron Ruell and Efren Ramirez, has kids seeing it for the fourth and fifth time. They're quoting lines from the movie such as "Don't be jealous that I've been chatting online with babes all day." They're punctuating sentences with Dynamite's trademark "gosh!"

Not bad for a movie playing on fewer than 600 screens and that has yet to crack the top 10.

That won't last long, though. Distributor Fox Searchlight continues to expand screens in the hopes of reaching 1,500 theaters nationwide.

"It still amazes me how it's caught on," Searchlight's Steve Gilula says. "Nobody thought it would be this big."

Dynamite did it with a canny marketing campaign and by tapping into a "geek chic" that kids can identify with.

Don't believe it? Check out the Napoleon Dynamite T-shirts. Searchlight printed 100,000 of them and gave them to anyone willing to go to a free screening. Searchlight also took the unusual step of bringing those moviegoers back for second and third helpings with "frequent viewer cards." Every time someone came back (ideally, with a friend), he got more freebies, including pins, decals and Napoleon Dynamite lip balm that reads "My lips hurt real bad."

"We were giving the film away to anyone who wanted to see it," says Nancy Utley, Searchlight's marketing president. "Kids love free things."

They also love the movie's ultra-nerd aesthetics, from the wood paneling to brown polyester suits to Napoleon's moon boots. The film is playing strongest in the Midwest and the Bible Belt, Utley says. "Anywhere the land is flat."

Like Westland, Mich., where Michael Gladden, 15, has seen the movie three times. "Napoleon is a geek, but you still like him. I'd rather see movies about a guy like that than a Hollywood stud any day."

He may get more of his favorite geek: There's talk of a sequel. Utley says executives became certain Dynamite could become a franchise after Heder made an appearance at the Teen Choice Awards last week.

"Paris Hilton wanted his autograph," she says. "When Paris Hilton wants Napoleon Dynamite's autograph, you're on to something."

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