'Secretariat' is running from behind out of the gate

It's a movie about a winning horse. It's a movie about a winsome housewife. Did we mention it's inspirational too, and maybe even spiritual?

In marketing "Secretariat," Disney is trying an array of strategies to attract moviegoers who so far have not shown a lot of interest in seeing the horse racing drama that opened Oct. 8.

Directed by the writer of "Braveheart" and produced by the team behind the sports movies "The Rookie," "Invincible" and "Miracle," the modestly budgeted film about the Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred has been singled out by Disney's new management as the kind of feel-good production it wants to make going forward. But like the chestnut colt's come-from-behind win in 1973's Kentucky Derby, the movie will have to rally from a sluggish start out of the theatrical gate.

Even though critics did not give "Secretariat" four-star reviews, with notices mostly mixed, Disney believes that the film has enormous audience appeal and that it will benefit from strong word of mouth. It has screened the film more than 250 times nationwide at military bases, large churches and elsewhere. The studio has used social media such as Facebook and Twitter to court niche audiences.

"Obviously, we want to play to a really broad, four-quadrant audience," said Sean Bailey, Disney's new production president. "We believe the movie is its own best advocate."

While the horse plays a central role in the movie, which was directed by Randall Wallace and written by Mike Rich, "Secretariat" ultimately focuses on Penny Chenery, a Denver mother of four who against some family members' wishes took over her late father's Meadow Farm stable and bred and raced Secretariat.

"Big Red," as the horse was popularly known, not only became the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown but also set records in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes that still stand today.

While the shift isn't too obvious, Disney's marketing push has changed since the studio started promoting "Secretariat" in late spring. The film's initial trailer in April opened with Chenery (played by Diane Lane) talking about her horse's running. "In frenzied excitement, he eats up the ground. He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength, and charges into the fray, afraid of nothing." Likewise, the film's outdoor campaign and poster focused on the horse.

In recent weeks, however, the sales pitch has tilted more toward Chenery and the people behind the thoroughbred, including her family. A featurette includes footage of Wallace saying, "The story of 'Secretariat' is a story about the hero inside each of us." Later in the advertisement, Wallace, says: "Life is about finding how far you can go — how fast you can run."

In a way, the studio is positioning "Secretariat" as this year's "The Blind Side," except that the hero wears a bridle instead of a helmet.

Rich Ross, who is marking his first year as Disney's studio chief, said: "Now more than ever, people are looking for something to inspire them. And I think Randall unapologetically commits to that ethos. He could have told many stories, but he told this story."