02/12/2014 4:35PM

Jay Hovdey: "50 to 1" using unorthodox publicity campaign

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As movie promotional stunts go, the heartland bus tour Jim Wilson has planned to generate interest in his Kentucky Derby fairytale “50 to 1” is pretty tame stuff. Unless, of course, at some point the bus breaks down and is rescued by the cast of “The Walking Dead.”

For the 2013 release of the Colin Farrell thriller “Dead Man Down,” the producers hired a viral ad company that staged a fake strangulation murder in an elevator and compiled a video of people reacting to the scene as the elevator doors opened. The ad was hilarious. The movie was a dud.

Cecil B. deMille embraced the religious fervor of an evangelical Christian sect in Minnesota called the Fraternal Order of Eagles to promote the release of his 1956 spectacle “The Ten Commandments.” An estimated 145 communities in 34 states installed carved granite monoliths displaying the 10 commandments in public places, with the enthusiastic blessing of both the FOE and MGM. “Ten Commandments” stars Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner even showed up at some of the ceremonies.

As we all know, we are not alone, which is exactly the angst into which the promoters of 20th Century’s apocalyptic “Independence Day” tapped in 1996 with a half-hour newscast on Fox TV that was interrupted by “breaking news” about an invasion of extra-terrestrials. The same folks who were fooled by “War of the Worlds” on radio in 1938 were fooled again in 1996 and will be fooled the next time as well.

At least the “50 to 1” bus tour will be the real thing, with real actors Skeet Ulrich, William Devane, and Christian Kane along for the ride, and the real, live Mine That Bird, 50-1 winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby, trailering behind the bus for part of the journey. The caravan will take to the road after the movie premieres in Albuquerque, N.M., on March 19, with a final destination of Churchill Downs, tracing close to the same route trainer Chip Woolley took with his right-hand man, Charlie Figueroa, when they slipped anonymously into Louisville five years ago this spring.

Wilson warmed up for the excitement of the bus tour last Sunday at Santa Anita Park by winning a claiming race on the grass with his one-horse stable Mom Nana Petrie, a 4-year-old daughter of Into Mischief. The victory lasted only about 10 minutes, at which point Mom Nana Petrie was disqualified for interfering with runner-up Smart N Dreamy late in the game.

“That happens,” said Wilson, a lifelong racing fan. “But she ran fine, and she’s put two wins together, or at least she did in my mind. She had a chip in her ankle that we took out, so you never know how they rebound. But she’s coming back nicely, and she’s game.”

Mom Nana Petrie is named for Wilson’s mother, Petrie Wilson, whose first trip to Santa Anita came in 1937.

“It was tough because Mom was there with her 85-year-old boyfriend,” Wilson said. “She wanted to show off her horse, and they were running down to the winner’s circle. When the inquiry came up I told them they might want to slow down a little bit.”

As the producer, director, co-writer (with Faith Conroy), and primary investor of “50 to 1,” Wilson is calling upon every piece of experience he has earned in the movie business. He is best known as the producer of “Dances With Wolves” with partner Kevin Costner, which won the Oscar as Best Picture of 1990 over a field that included “Goodfellas” and “Godfather Part III.”

“With this movie it’s the weirdest thing,” Wilson said. “I have no idea if people will show up to see it. We’ll be up against some big studio movies that spent 10 times what we did. But we’ve got New Mexico to ourselves to get rolling before we move to Texas and Louisiana. News and the internet moves fast today, so the hope is that it will hit with the grassroots and start a little bit of a snowball.”

In the years since “Seabiscuit” earned a Best Picture nomination in 2003, there has been a mixed bag of theatrical releases with a horse racing theme. Everyone had a chance to see “Secretariat” and “Dreamer,” both major studio releases, and “Racing Stripes” was a lot more fun than it should have been. But others – including “All Hat,” “The Derby Stallion,” “Shannon’s Rainbow,” and “And They’re Off” – came and went pretty quick, if they came around at all.

There have been no previews of “50 to 1” to gauge early audience response.

“I think these days too much is given away sometimes,” Wilson noted. “You see 15 clips and 16 trailers, and by the time the movie comes around you say, ‘I think I’ve seen it already.’ You’ve certainly seen the best of it.”

Then again, who needs previews when you’ve got a bus tour.

“We’re going to the far reaches, the little towns, not just the metropolises,” Wilson said. “We’ll be at Sunland Park for the Sunland Derby, New Orleans for the Louisiana Derby, Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby.

“People pretty much know the ending, so it’s all about how you get there,” Wilson added. “We’re proud of the movie, and now I’m just anxious for the day to get there.”