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Marketing "Sugar": To Baseball or Not to Baseball

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik March 9, 2009 at 5:48AM

Marketing "Sugar": To Baseball or Not to Baseball
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Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's "Sugar" -- one of my favorite movies from last year's Sundance -- opens in theaters in about a month. I was recently struck by the film's poster while passing by my local movie theater. While quibbling with the marketing tactics of specialized studios is usually not worth the effort, I do care about "Sugar" a lot, and because of the delicacy with which it needs handling and preparing in the marketplace, I was stupified at the uninspired nature of the poster art -- particularly because the film's fairly compelling trailer does a good job of capturing the movie's baseball millieu and the humorous, likeable nature of its cultural clash/immigrant story.

But the still image of the poster conveys... I really have no idea. Any reference to baseball is essentially omitted, elided in favor of a vaguely ominous, crypic image of the film's protagonist, without any context. Can someone tell me what bridge is behind him, and what purpose it serves, other than its graphic quality? I suppose there may be a concern that the film's target art-house audience might not go to a "sports" movie, but then again, the trailer fully embraces the baseball setting, so I'm not sure. In my review of the film, I pointed out the film's precarious, but ultimately successful construction that combines both sports-movie conventions and alters them: "In a storytelling move that is as bold as it is believable, Fleck and Boden get to have their baseball movie—with its suspenseful scenes of Sugar on the mound, trying to pick the right pitch to strike out the opposing batters—and subvert it, too."

Admittedly, it's a tricky balance that the filmmakers achieve, and equally tricky for Sony Classics' marketing department. I know of at least one prominent Sundance viewer who resented the fact that the film departed from its baseball cliches, so obviously the marketers have to be careful. If people go in expecting a tale of "baseball-playing foreigner makes it big in the American sport," a la Sosa, Rodriguez, etc., they will be disappointed. But then again, with the film's release timed around baseball season, this notion will undoubtedly play a role in driving the buzz. Then again, judging from the hard-to-market quality of Boden and Fleck's previous "Half Nelson," and audiences' willingness (mostly) to accept the story of a drug-addicted-high-school-teacher based on the film's positive reviews, maybe all these questions are moot... and "Sugar," an equally superb film, will find the audiences it deserves.