02/07/2014 2:58PM

Grassroots bus tour part of launch for the film "50 to 1"

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Ten Furlongs, LLC
Director Jim Wilson gives Calvin Borel instructions during the filming of "50 to 1."

The Academy Award-winning producer Jim Wilson was watching the Kentucky Derby on a small television screen in his Los Angeles office in 2009, when the last-to-first burst of unlikely winner Mine That Bird seized his senses. For the past three years, Wilson has worked to bring the little gelding’s eternal moment to the big screen, and the result is the feature-length film “50 to 1” that opens in New Mexico on March 21.

The movie will be released in six subsequent states in a tiered schedule, and depending on its popularity will then move into other markets, said Wilson, its producer, writer, and director. The film will be promoted in a fashion reminiscent of the road trip Mine That Bird took when his connections vanned the Kentucky Derby longshot from his New Mexico base to Churchill Downs.

In a tour bus, Wilson and members of the cast of “50 to 1,” which includes Skeet Ulrich as trainer Chip Woolley and Christian Kane as co-owner Mark Allen, will travel a somewhat similar route while stopping at movie theaters and other destinations along the way. The group is currently scheduled to appear at the Sunland Park Derby on March 23; the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on March 29; the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 12; and the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 19.

“It’s pretty unprecedented, getting a movie started aboard a bus,” Wilson said.

[A SNEAK PEEK AT "50 to 1", THE STORY OF MINE THAT BIRD]

The unique release and promotional plans for “50 to 1” – which cost $8.5 million to make – is a departure from the big-budget films Wilson has produced and/or directed in the past, the list including “Dances With Wolves,” winner of seven Academy Awards including best picture; “The Bodyguard;” “Wyatt Earp;” and “Message in a Bottle.” But for him, “50 to 1” is more a labor of love.

Wilson, 57, is a lifelong racing fan who has owned horses since 1992, with his four-horse stable’s latest winner, Mom Nana Petrie, scheduled to run Sunday at Santa Anita. His company Ten Furlongs – the distance of the Kentucky Derby, he notes – is distributing the film and is among the group of about five financial backers.

“It just feels good to put this out there,” Wilson said. “I watched the race on my little TV and I was blown away by what happened. It was visually stunning, and as a filmmaker you hope for visually stunning. I’m also a huge fan of the underdog, a sucker for a great underdog story. These guys, when we started to investigate Mark Allen, Chip Woolley, Doc [Leonard Blach], we found out they were real, true-blue, 100 percent American cowboys.

“I like stuff a little grittier. If you look at some of my movies, “Dances with Wolves,” “Wyatt Earp,” “The Postman,” they’re grittier films, a lot of true-to-life stuff. This felt just right.”

Wilson said the film is an hour and 45 minutes in length. The premiere will be in Albuquerque, N.M., on March 19. It’s an invitation-only event due to the size of the theater, he said, and both Mine That Bird and his jockey, Calvin Borel, are scheduled to be on hand, along with some star power out of Hollywood. The film will be released on a wider scale in New Mexico two days later, then will open in theaters throughout Texas and Louisiana on April 4; Oklahoma and Arkansas on April 11; and Tennessee and Kentucky on April 18.

Wilson said with big-budget movies, a film might go into 3,000 theaters nationwide immediately. But in this case, he said, because a studio is not behind the film, the task of releasing it is left to the investors, which includes Allen and the principals of Tommy Town Thoroughbreds.

“We have to start with a grassroots effort,” Wilson said. “The best way to do it, I thought, was roll it out, take it pretty much state by state, opening in New Mexico, which makes total sense because that’s where the story emanates from, where the horse lived.

“The hope at the end of the day is that everyone around the country will be able to see it. We’ll start out with this release, and if it gains momentum and the numbers are good, then we’ll open all across the country.”

The film is the first horse racing feature Wilson has made, although he did do a documentary on retired jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. He said “50 to 1” is cut from a little different cloth than some of the racing movies that have been made of late.

“I think the film is a romp,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s a good time. Even as I was directing every day, I kept thinking, ‘This is a popcorn and soda movie.’ ”

But Wilson also wanted it to be authentic, and as a Pasadena, Cal., native who grew up going to Santa Anita and whose eventual stable has been as large as 12 horses, he understands both the serious and playful nuances of the sport. In one scene, Blach’s character, played by William Devane, finishes palpating a mare and immediately shakes hands to cement a deal that leaves some, well, natural residue on the hand of Allen, played by Kane.

“I think any horseman will appreciate the authentic moments in this film,” Wilson said.

In another scene, a line spoken by Woolley’s character, Ulrich, sums up the intangible that drives a person to bring a longshot like Mine That Bird to the Kentucky Derby.

“Life ain’t worth much if all you do is play it safe.”