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Box Office 2.0: The Curious Case of "Orson Welles"

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire December 2, 2009 at 3:06AM

Amidst a busy Thanksgiving box office frame that saw such flashy specialty success stories as "Broken Embraces"'s mammoth per-theater-average and "Precious"'s continued success in semi-wide release, another indie success story was potentially being set in motion. The do-it-yourself release of Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" got off to a very nice start, averaging $15,910 from its four theaters, the highest PTA of all debuting films. Though it has been seen time and time again that a potent debut does not necessarily translate into continued success through expansion, watching what happens to "Welles" over the next few weeks will be very interesting. While DIY releases from "Bottle Shock" to "Valentino: The Last Emperor" have recently managed strong final grosses, "Me and Orson Welles" is not your average do-it-yourselfer. Its director has an impressive resume that includes some American indie classics, and its star - Zac Efron - is one of the biggest teen idols on the planet.
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Amidst a busy Thanksgiving box office frame that saw such flashy specialty success stories as "Broken Embraces"'s mammoth per-theater-average and "Precious"'s continued success in semi-wide release, another indie success story was potentially being set in motion. The do-it-yourself release of Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" got off to a very nice start, averaging $15,910 from its four theaters, the highest PTA of all debuting films. Though it has been seen time and time again that a potent debut does not necessarily translate into continued success through expansion, watching what happens to "Welles" over the next few weeks will be very interesting. While DIY releases from "Bottle Shock" to "Valentino: The Last Emperor" have recently managed strong final grosses, "Me and Orson Welles" is not your average do-it-yourselfer. Its director has an impressive resume that includes some American indie classics, and its star - Zac Efron - is one of the biggest teen idols on the planet.

"Welles" follows Richard Samuels (Efron), a teenager who is cast in the Mercury Theatre production of "Julius Caesar" directed by a young Orson Welles (Cristian McKay) in 1937. Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo Jr. adapted the film's screenplay from Robert Kaplow's novel of the same name. After receiving funding from CinemaNX, a production company backed by the Isle of Man film fund, Richard Linklater came on board to direct.

The film is being distributed through Freestyle Releasing (the company also responsible for "Bottle Shock"), in an arrangement orchestrated by financing and sales agency Cinetic Media. It had premiered without distribution at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival over fourteen months ago. At the time, Toronto's co-director Cameron Bailey predicted to indieWIRE that "Welles" was definitely going to be one of the fest's big sells.

"There’s 'Me and Orson Welles,'" Bailey had said when asked about potential sales, "the new Richard Linklater film that I think definitely is going to be one of the hottest films - and not just because its Richard Linklater… There is this guy named Zac Efron in it as well which people seem to know and then its got this terrific performance by this guy Christian McKay who plays Orson Welles in 1937 as he’s mounting a production of 'Julius Caesar.' So this is a big title obviously and to have films like that premiering with us is really important."

This suggestion was echoed in the trades, with Anne Thompson, then working for Variety suggesting it would be one of the festival's few seven figure sales. But when the festival was said and done, "Welles" hadn't found a home, despite receiving a warm response from critics in Toronto. So Cinetic decided to take matters into their own hands.

Christian McKay as Orson Welles. Photo courtesy of Freestyle Releasing.

"What we did was basically created our own service distribution company, and then we went out and got the prints & advertising," Cinetic head John Sloss told indieWIRE yesterday. "The reason we did that is that we knew we had a film of significant and inherent value both in terms of its quality and in terms of its cast, and we were not getting offers commensurate with that value. It didn't really 'end up' at Freestyle. We put together a distribution team, and we hired Freestyle to handle distribution, meaning to book the theaters. Freestyle's just an amazing company. They really are doing it for the right reasons, and they're really good at what they do. They value transparency, which is something that's very important to us."

Sloss and Cinetic, who have been involved with every Richard Linklater film since 1991's "Slacker," also hired Russell Schwartz who used to head marketing at New Line, to be in charge of marketing for this project. "We think he's one of the best people in the world at marketing high-end specialty movies," Sloss said. "Rick has worked with him before on 'Dazed and Confused' and I've worked with him many times."

The film is being released in the UK this Friday (where CinemaNX and Vue Theaters in the UK have joined together to basically distribute the film themselves), and will continue to expand in the U.S. in the coming weeks. Sloss said that so far, things are looking positive, and Zac Efron doesnt even appear to be the main reason.

"The film ended up skewing older, not that we expected it, it just did," he said. "Basically, it played well to adult audiences that like sophisticated, specialized movies, which is interesting because we weren't clear whether Zac's younger audience would show up or not. We didn't particularly market to them, although we didn't preclude them. But what we saw from the first weekend is that the film hopefully will have legs among the people who support films like, say, 'An Education.' It turned out to be appealing to that demographic. So we're going to pretty much stay the course this weekend, and then there will be an expansion on the following weekend. And then like many films in this situation, we'll just sort of follow the gross. We'll see how the numbers hold up. We've secured enough money to support it accordingly, and we'll just have to see. We've given the film a fair shot to succeed and now a lot of it is about the film and the word of mouth it inspires."

While "Orson Welles" is one the first examples of such a high-profile film going to the DIY route, if it proves successful, it's going to be done a lot more in the future.


"Box Office 2.0" is a weekly column by indieWIRE Associate Editor Peter Knegt. Check out the previous editions:

Box Office 2.0: Fall Winners and Losers
Box Office 2.0: Assessing 2009's Dox Office From "Capitalism" to "The Cove"
Box Office 2.0: Two Notable DIY Releases That Opened In "Precious"'s Shadow
Box Office 2.0: Snap Judgements & Great Expectations

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