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Quirky creators employ unusual Southern strategy

ATLANTA - Ray McKinnon just wanted some curry for lunch.

Instead, he got his car immobilized for parking illegally outside an Atlanta restaurant last week - and a chance to hand a flier for his new movie to the guy who showed up to pry the metal boot off of his tire.

'He said it totally looks like his kind of movie and he'll go see it,' said McKinnon, the writer, director and star of 'Randy and the Mob,' a quirky Southern comedy that opened Friday in five Atlanta theaters. 'The only mistake I made was waiting to give him the flier after I got the ticket.'

The face-to-face promotion is part of an ambitious, and unorthodox, campaign cooked up by McKinnon, an Academy Award-winner for the 2001 short film 'The Accountant,' and other backers of a movie they expect to resonate quicker with viewers in the South than with traditional opinion-makers in New York and Los Angeles.

It's a plan that includes burning lots of shoe leather - McKinnon compares it to fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter's campaign for president, during which he slept on couches instead of paying for hotels - and wooing such 'Southern opinion leaders' as humorist Roy Blount and the founder of the Sweet Potato Queens.

They plan to roll out the movie city-by-city in the South. Friday's Atlanta release will be followed by openings in Tennessee next week, Arkansas and Oklahoma the next and North Carolina and Texas the following two.

McKinnon and other cast and crew members will follow the film each week, hitting the streets, talking to local media and generally spreading the word any way they can.

'We're shameless,' said producer David Koplan, who had just returned to Los Angeles Thursday after a trip to Atlanta in advance of the opening. 'But we're proud of what we have so we want to share it.'

For McKinnon, whose acting credits include 'O Brother, Where Art Thou' and HBO's 'Deadwood,' it made sense to try to build support for an independent film shot in and around Atlanta among people he thinks will relate the most to the culture and characters it depicts.

'I wanted to show a vision of the South in a comical and quirky setting that I know about - that rings true to me,' said McKinnon, a native of Adel, Ga., a town of about 5,000 near the Florida line. 'Every Southerner will identify with Randy.'

'Randy and the Mob' is the story of Randy Pearson (McKinnon), a scheming small businessman who finds himself in over his head when a long-standing debt comes due to a pair of low-level mobsters.

Longtime McKinnon collaborator and fellow Georgia native Walton Goggins ('The Shield') plays Tino Armani, a modern-day prophet with a knack for high fashion, Italian cuisine and clogging, and Lisa Blount, McKinnon's wife, plays his on-screen bride, a baton teacher with carpal tunnel syndrome.

McKinnon also doubles as his own estranged, gay, twin brother.

It's a drastic departure from McKinnon's 2004 film, 'Chrystal,' a bleak, gothic tale starring Billy Bob Thornton as a man returning home from prison after a car wreck that kills his son and breaks the neck of his wife.

'After three years of living with such a dark, sad story day in and day out, I couldn't imagine making another movie like that,' he said. 'This one's like an old Doris Day movie - you know there's going to be peril, but you know everybody's going to be all right.'

He said early feedback's been positive. He's found a fan in Jill Conner Browne, founder of the Jackson, Miss.-based Sweet Potato Queens, a group of women celebrating flamboyant behavior with more than 5,000 chapters worldwide.

He's made inroads with groups like the Red Hat Society and The National Clogging Organization Inc., and sent copies of the movie to Southern writers like Blount and Kathy Hogan Trocheck, who writes novels under the name Mary Kay Andrews.

McKinnon hopes tapping into those traditionally Southern groups, much the way the creators of surprise 2002 hit 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' started by showing their film at Greek-American community centers, will start a groundswell that could make 'Randy' a similar surprise at the box office.

'It's all a part of this really grass-roots effort that we've embarked on,' McKinnon said. 'We had to think of different ways to draw attention to a movie that does not have George Clooney and Brad Pitt or Bruce Willis or whoever.'