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'Napoleon Dynamite' sparks merchandising phenomenon

Teens and adults sport T-shirts and more from indie film

Once, long ago, "Napoleon Dynamite" was a classic indie long shot, filmed in the director's Idaho hometown for a piddling $400,000, cast partly with college pals and the family llama. But at some point between the screening at Sundance and the launch of the official "Napoleon Dynamite" energy drink, larger forces started taking over.

In part, it's the language: The love song to nerds with the Casio score has 14-year-olds across the country saying "Dang" and "Gosh" and has added, like, infinity new catch phrases to the vernacular. A contestant in the recent National Spelling Bee took his turn at the mike to muse, as Napoleon did, "Do the chickens have large talons?" — and the audience went wild.

But in part, it's the loot: Moviedom's biggest inside joke has also become its most marketable one. Hot Topic, the mall store that had exclusive claim on the "Napoleon" license from January through June, sells "Napoleon Dynamite" pillow-and-comforter sets, CD holders, buttons, lunchboxes, trading cards, sweat pants, underpants (bikini and thong), shoelaces, magnet sets, lip balm, hats and T-shirts that say everything from "Nessie, Our Underwater Ally" to "I Heart Tater Tots." (The "Vote for Pedro" shirt was the chain's best-selling T-shirt ever.)

School supplies and Halloween costumes are coming this fall; a line of 6-inch action figures is due out in November.

Already, the flood of merchandise has sparked a tiny backlash. At Hot Topic in the South Shore Plaza last week, 14-year-old John Haslam of Weymouth gazed with contempt at a wall of "Napoleon" shirts. "I refuse to see it," he said of the film, frowning around his braces. "I don't like Tater Tots."

But the "Napoleon" goods have stemmed from a groundswell of demand, said Elie Dekel, executive vice president of licensing and merchandising at 20th Century Fox, whose Fox Searchlight Pictures distributes the film. And in a retail world shaped by "Star Wars" action figures and Disney tie-ins, Dekel said, "Napoleon Dynamite" represents something different. It's not a kids' movie. It's not science fiction. "There's no violence. There's no action adventure, with the exception of a tetherball game."

Its appeal, instead, is built on a few solid principles of 2005 culture. Geeks are suddenly hip (See: "The O.C."). An oddball movie stands out amid a glut of sequels and cookie-cutter action flicks. And, perhaps most important, a collective experience is worth paying for. The cult of "Napoleon" demonstrates one of those sweet ironies of youth: that the best way to celebrate nonconformity is to buy the T-shirt.

Individuality is, after all, the key to Napoleon Dynamite, a grumpy, gawky antihero who wears weathered moonboots and does an astonishingly smooth dance to Jamiroquai's "Canned Heat." The loosely plotted film weaves from his brother's chat room romance to his friend's unlikely bid for class president, all with an almost-painful high school authenticity; it's a compendium of director Jared Hess' experiences growing up in Kansas and Idaho.

It's also a nod to Hess' Mormon background, with no swearing, no sex and no violence, unless you count the steak Uncle Rico hurls at Napoleon's bike.

Hess co-wrote the film with his wife, Jerusha; cast fellow Brigham Young University graduate Jon Heder in the lead; and started shooting in free locales in Preston, Idaho, in the summer of 2003. Hess was 24 at the time. His wife, seven months pregnant, shared duty designing costumes and taming Heder's perm.

What followed is already filmmaking lore: "Napoleon Dynamite" was a buzz hit at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and was soon acquired for about $4 million by Fox Searchlight, which partnered with Paramount Pictures and MTV Films for distribution. The rollout — first in a few selected theaters, then on wider release — was a $10 million symphony of buzz marketing. Fox handed out T-shirts and frequent-viewer cards that yielded such freebies as lip balm labeled with Napoleon's line "My lips hurt real bad."

The studio added a wedding-scene epilogue weeks into the release to encourage repeat viewers and lured college students with wild publicity gimmicks. Wes Gehring, a film professor at Ball State University, remembers the day the movie rolled in. There were llamas all over campus.

Eventually, the film grossed more than $45 million at the box office. And soon after the December release of the DVD, Fox executives started hearing reports of catch phrases making the rounds in high school cafeterias and coming out of celebrities' mouths, Dekel said.

In Colorado, an evangelical Christian ministry sent out a primer on how to connect the film to Jesus' message.

At Boston College, an a cappella group re-created the movie's "Happy Hands Club" sign language performance to Bette Midler's "The Rose."

At Braintree High, some freshmen report, a fistfight broke out in the cafeteria over movie lines. And Mike Hapgood, 14, engaged in a fevered dance-off, against another fan, in the parking lot after school.

A crowd gathered to watch, Hapgood recalled in a food court recently. "It was, like, 500 kids. A lot," he said.

"It was, like, 10," said his friend Joe Ponticelli, 15, who wore a "Pedro Offers You His Protection" T-shirt under another top.

"Maybe it was, like, 10. It was a lot of kids," Hapgood said.

As word of mouth was swelling, so was the merchandising machine. Fox inked its deal with retailer Hot Topic in January, Dekel said, as calls from would-be licensees poured in. McFarlane Toys in Tempe, Ariz., which made "X-Files" dolls and "Austin Powers" figures, called contacts at Fox shortly after the DVD came out.

The movie seemed to intersect with McFarlane's market, said the company's president, Larry Marder: teenagers and adults who buy their toys themselves and display them like badges of honor on their desks. But the "Napoleon" craze is also a sign of how moviegoing tastes have changed, and how easy it is for an underground hit to become an aboveground phenomenon. Would "Harold and Maude" have sparked the same heady thrill of discovery if the malls had been full of Maude bobblehead dolls?

Seeing a cult fave used to require insider knowledge and special effort; you'd have to go to the midnight screening or catch it on TV at 3 a.m., said Gehring, the Ball State film professor. Now, cult movies represent a broad, unwieldy genre, and quirky is a mainstream selling point. "It's halfway traditional to have studios market movies as 'offbeat,' " he said.

And while the days of merchandising tie-ins are as old as the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" T-shirt, the "Napoleon" machine reveals how much people are willing to buy, said Danny Peary, author of several books about cult movies. It turns out, he says, that the joke at the end of "Waiting for Guffman" — when Christopher Guest's character showed off a pair of "My Dinner With Andre" action figures — wasn't so far from the truth.

The marketing has helped earn the film its devotion, said Mark Bosko, author of "The Complete Independent Movie Marketing Handbook." When he saw seven "Vote for Pedro" T-shirts at a recent Cleveland Indians game, Bosko said, he knew the studios had done something right.

Fox and its licensees are betting the "Napoleon" wave will last many more months; in retail terms, the Christmas market is eons away. And Dekel is confident; DVD sales have surpassed 5 million units and show no sign of waning.

But there are a few reports, from suburbia, of early-stage "Napoleon"-fatigue. Julie Waxman, a 16-year-old from Easton, said a friend broke up with his girlfriend because she wouldn't stop quoting the movie. Dan Reis, a 17-year-old from Stoughton, sighed that the joke "gets played out after a while."

And a greater sin than overquoting "Napoleon" lines, Reis said, is wearing a "Napoleon" T-shirt. "I wouldn't be friends with somebody who wore that," he said.