Beyond the Big Apple; Looking at Regional Indie Hits
by Rania Richardson
While New York may still be the essential market in determining success for independent films in this country, over the years hits have been made in other American regions, sometimes bypassing New York completely. In some cases, distributors target a geographically specific market where a homegrown film will have local appeal. In other cases, the enthusiastic regional response comes as a surprise.
On May 7, ThinkFilm opened Paul Doyle, Jr.'s "Still, We Believe: The Boston Red Sox Movie," in commercial theaters in Boston and made a weekend gross of $91,388 for a $5,376 per-screen average. The film documents the team's 2003 baseball season as seen through the eyes of passionate local fans. The filmmaker's access to team players and management gives the film a behind-the-scenes angle, but the story may not hold interest beyond Red Sox fans.
Distribution head Mark Urman told indieWIRE that the company acquired the film for limited release because, "New England is a huge region" and many Red Sox fans have an almost "maniacal" love for their team. In addition to being a local story, the film would probably not work in New York because in this story, "the chief villain is the New York Yankees," Urman says. ThinkFilm expanded the film throughout New England this past weekend, upping the total gross to $265,000, and ThinkFilm still has no plans to open in it in New York.
Alternate release patterns are not without precedent. The $2.3 million gross on Jeff Daniels' 2001 deer hunting comedy, "Escanaba in da Moonlight" was the result of an exclusively Midwestern run. The film is full of insider jokes that wouldn't resonate with urban audiences, so the film never opened in New York. Daniels grew up in Michigan and shot the film in the state's upper peninsula. He hired Chicago-based Lange Film Releasing to book the film locally after major distributors turned it down. "It grossed over $2 million in Michigan alone," John Lange said, adding that his company is always prepared to trump Hollywood by taking a film out "David and Goliath style."
Lange's company is a sub-distributor for Newmarket Films, handling sales "from Duluth to Key West and from the Virginias to Wyoming." He has sold that territory for Bob Berney's films for years, going back to "Memento" and even "Telling Lies in America" and "Happiness."
Currently Lange's company is releasing Chris Boebel's 1940s family drama "Red Betsy." The fact that Boebel was raised in Wisconsin and the film is set and shot there is a triple punch in terms of local publicity, as it was with "Escanaba" in Michigan. The film opened in September with no plans to screen in New York, this time due to prohibitive marketing costs.
Alongside local films that become regional hits, there are films whose audiences are geographically specific due to the particular niche markets there. The 2000 Swedish Academy Award nominee, "Under the Sun" found success in Miami and other parts of southern Florida. According to Ken Eisen, president of Waterville, Maine-based Shadow Releasing, the film appealed to the area's older audience. It was on screen in Florida consistently for five months, with 21 engagements. Director Colin Nutley's gentle film has a nostalgic feel, but is not an obvious candidate for senior appeal. Its regional success came as a surprise after it had a disappointing short run in New York that followed a negative review in The New York Times.
Eisen expanded on the general topic of disproportionate box office successes via email, writing that "unexpected surprises seem a little rarer in these days of national advertising and massive hype, and with audiences seemingly more trepidatious than ever at trying something genuinely new outside a festival context, but they do still occur."
Also surprising was the success of Roxie Releasing's "Rivers & Tides" in northern California's Bay Area. German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer's meditative film was on screen in at least one theater in the Bay Area for more than a year, and spent 32 consecutive weeks in Berkeley's Elmwood Theater last year. It grossed more than $800,000 in the region. According to Rick Norris, president of the San Francisco-based distributor, the film appealed to the area's many artists and art students familiar with the film's subject, artist Andy Goldsworthy. "It also appealed to people practicing Zen Buddhism, and there are lots of those here," he added.
The good news for filmmakers from every corner of the country, is that whether by design or by chance, regional distribution can provide screenings and profits for films with a geographically specific audience.