By Gregg Kilday
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Warner Bros. took a risk. Its poster for "The Town," Ben Affleck's new movie about a gang of Boston bank robbers, featured a startling image: gun-wielding, masked nuns in front of an armored van.
If it hadn't beaten expectations and opened as the weekend's No. 1 movie, the Monday-morning quarterbacks probably would have dismissed the marketing move as a misguided effort that looked more like "Nuns on the Run" by way of screaming-man artist Edvard Munch.
But in the wake of "Town's" $23.8 million bow, Warners scored a genuine hit, Affleck buffed up his bona fides as a director, and the debate has begun over whether the movie will develop the momentum that will take it into Oscar season.
Prognosticators last week suggested that the movie would open with about $15 million, coming in at No. 2 behind fellow rookie "Easy A."
But during the past two weeks, "Town" was busy building momentum, which isn't always easy to measure. Affleck accompanied the drama to the Venice International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere September 8; three days later, the director and his cast moved to Toronto where they chatted it up to the North American press; then it had its U.S. premiere September 14 at Boston's Fenway Park, where the movie's climactic heist is set.
Affleck also found time to work the morning TV shows and their late-night counterparts.
"In the past 10 days, you could feel everything coming together," said Sue Kroll, Warners president of worldwide marketing. "It's a movie that's both appreciated by the critics and that audiences like. And the campaign and the cast was everywhere. When the results come together like that, it's all very gratifying. Ben and the cast did everything we asked of them."
Kroll had been a fan of Affleck's first directorial effort, "Gone Baby Gone," which Miramax released in 2007. Another Boston-set crime thriller, the movie earned good reviews -- and an Oscar nomination for Amy Ryan -- but it opened to just $5.5 million, ultimately grossing $20.3 million domestically.
However, when Affleck first showed Kroll an early cut of "Town" on his editing bay in Santa Monica, she sensed that the new movie -- which Warners co-produced with Legendary for slightly less than $35 million -- could reach a wider audience. The trick was to concoct a dual-track campaign, wooing critics on one hand while staging an aggressive consumer campaign on the other.
To attract the latter, Warners went out early with TV spots, with an emphasis on sports programing, hitting NBA games during the summer and then booking the first wave of NFL games closer to release.
It also benefited by attaching the first trailer for "Town" to Christopher Nolan's "Inception." Said Kroll, "I got as many calls about that trailer as I did about 'Inception' itself."
To reach the critics, the studio accepted invites to Venice and Toronto, and held plenty of critics screenings in recent weeks.
"With 'Gone Baby Gone,' there was a sense among the critics that Ben was a terrific new director," Kroll said, "so we wanted to put his second effort out there, to show that he is an interesting director with an interesting point of view. And that the movie was also commercial."
As for that poster, which borrows an image from the movie: Kroll's marketing team mocked up several versions -- some of which took a more conventional route, featuring the stars' head shots -- that she had displayed around her office. But it was the image of the bank-robbing nuns that caught the attention of passersby.
Meanwhile, Warners distribution chief Dan Fellman targeted the movie's September 17 release date. Affleck's film bears a passing similarity to Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" -- same town, similar accents -- which Warners opened on October 6, 2006, and rode to four Oscar wins, including best picture, plus a $132 million domestic gross.
Although there was no avoiding comparisons with "Departed," Fellman opted for a release date a few weeks earlier on the calendar, right on the heels of "Town's" festival bows.
"We knew there would be a lot of upscale films in the fall, a lot of pictures coming out of Toronto, so we wanted to give the movie its own identity at the festivals and then let it open in a noncompetitive atmosphere and give it time to grow," Fellman said. "We also wanted to distance it a little bit from the 'Departed' date."
"Town" isn't expected to achieve the same grosses as "Departed," which used its marquee names of Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg to bow to $26.9 million while hanging in at the box office for weeks on end.
But now the question is whether "Town" can duplicate some of "Departed's" awards glory.
The movie played to Academy members on Saturday night, and one audience member reported that though a few thought the movie was derivative of other crime tales, "it was well received, and Ben got nice applause."
With 10 best picture slots up for grabs, "Town" could prove a contender.
As one rival Oscar consultant said, "Actors are always loony about actors who write and direct a movie, so they could give it up for Ben" -- though when the Academy has honored such actors-turned-directors as Robert Redford, Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson, they were all somewhat older than Affleck, who is a relatively young 38.
Still, "Town" is on the awards-circuit radar. In Toronto, talk focused particularly on Jeremy Renner, last year's best actor nominee for "The Hurt Locker," who could score a supporting nomination for playing an out-of-control member of Affleck's gang.
The Warners team, while celebrating the weekend's win, aren't breaking out the Champagne about the movie's awards potential just yet, though.
"At this stage," Fellman said, "what we have to do is enjoy the weekend, see how it holds in Week 2 and then decide how to go forward."