Considering Some of the Successes and Disappointments at the 2004 Box Office
by Eugene Hernandez
In this week's box office round up we'll be taking a look at a few of the hits and misses of 2004 and asking some company heads to talk about the successes and disappointments in 2004. But first a quick peak at the last weekend of the year; "Hotel Rwanda" from United Artists and "The Merchant of Venice" from Sony Pictures Classics topped indieWIRE's weekly BOT, which tracks specialty releases by their per screen average. "Rwanda" earned $142,378 on 7 screens, giving it a chart-topping average of $20,340. It has made a total of $426,803 so far. Meanwhile, "Merchant" made $69,868 on two screens for a $17,467 average. It has made $103,260 so far.
Studio film "In Good Company" was the real big winner, making a major $151,750 on three screens for an average of $50,583 and a total of $225,031 so far.
At number three on indieWIRE's BOT was the opening numbers for "The Assassination of Richard Nixon." The THINKFilm release, starring Sean Penn, made $37,547 on five screens for an average of $7,509. It has earned $55,255 since opening last week.
Looking back at 2004, THINKFilm's theatrical distribution head Mark Urman said that he more surprised this year by the performance of "The Passion of the Christ" than any other movie. "Controversy, scandal, irritation, and Jew and liberal baiting -- all of which fall under the heading of marketing -- normally can only get a film so far. That the film went so much further, and that there really was a vast, willing, accepting, and appreciative audience for it was a bit of a shock." The film made a whopping $370 million in its theatrical release. The Newmarket release was a high point for the company, which faced tougher times later in the year with its releases of "Silver City" (just over $1 million), "P.S." (more than $180,000), and "Stander" (just over $31,000).
On the tougher side, THINKFilm's Urman finds that companies are aggressively competing for a small audience that does not want challenging films. "Good alternative films will always find an audience," he noted," But tricky, risky, demanding ones are reaching fewer and fewer people in theaters." Urman cited "The Story of the Weeping Camel" which he said, "We were able to drive to a truly impressive gross, very cost-efficiently -- it was all about starting with a good movie that people like and then doing a lot of hard work." It earned more than $1.7 million. Urman added that he was disappointed in the performance of "Primer" saying, "I was disappointed that more people weren't up to the narrative challenges of 'Primer'. We certainly gave it a lot of presence in the media, and the critics couldn't have been more supportive," said Urman of "Primer." The theatrical audience, however..."
"Primer" made about $424,000 in its theatrical release, a number in the neighborhood of the grosses for the equally challenging Wellspring releases "Tarnation" and "The Brown Bunny." Those films made $478,000, and $366,000 respectively.
Overall, film distributors faced a tough year in '04, with two indie releases, "The Passion of the Christ" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" pushing the overall industry box office in '04 to a mere $48 million increase over 2003, according to Variety, for a total gross of $9.2 billion. That's a small .5% margin and overall admissions are down. Variety noted that the box office grosses from the studios and their subsidiaries dropped by 6.2% from last year. That's bad news given the increase of 3% in ticket prices. Last year, according to the Hollywood trade paper, the companies saw a 5% drop in ticket sales from the previous year.
Lions Gate Releasing president Tom Ortenberg explained that it is challenging to "break through the clutter" in the crowded marketplace today, adding "There seems to be an increasing 'feast or famine' routine for (indie) films that is cutting out the middle class. Some films are succeeding in a big way, some are failing in a huge way, seems like their are fewer middle of the road, moderate successes." Ortenberg noted his pride in the success of "Fahrenheit 9/11" (just shy of $120 million), released with IFC and the Fellowship Adventure Group, and his releases of "Saw" (more than $55.1 million), "Open Water" (more than $30.5 million) and "The Punisher" ($33.7 million), not to mention the carry-over business that Lions Gate saw this year from last year's releases, "Girl With the Pearl Earring" and "The Cooler." As far as disappointments for himself personally, he singled out the performances of "Danny Deckchair" (about $160,000) and "Stage Beauty" (about $782,000).
At Zeitgeist, co-president Nancy Gerstman noted that the biggest challenges they faced was not hold screens for their films ("The Corporation" played for more than 3 months), but rather, she said, "We are facing a big challenge in the change of focus for independently owned theatres like the Castro in San Francisco, who recently unceremoniously fired their long-time programmer." She added, "We're also impatiently waiting for the 'digital revolution' to arrive at some of our favorite independent theatres. Since acquisitions is always so challenging for a company like ours we don't want to be limited by technology when it comes to acquiring product in digital format that could play more widely."
Gerstman praised the success of "The Corporation," calling it a huge success. "It made 1.88 million at the box office and is poised to be a monster on DVD. It benefited from three very articulate and committed filmmakers, its relevance to things people are concerned about these days, and a very effective grass roots promotion." On the other hand, she noted challenges with "Since Otar Left," a film that she said, "Was a spectacular critical success but didn't come close to reaching the box office of some of our other foreign language films. We're still scratching our heads over that one and positioning the DVD (just released) to reach a wider audience." The film made $350,391.
Dennis O'Connor from HBO Films cited movies like his release "Maria Full of Grace" ($6.5 million) as well as Focus Features' "Motorcycle Diaries" ($15.7 million) and Miramax' "Hero" ($53.6 million) in noting the "rich, ambitious and challenging foreign films" that "continue to redefine upwards what audiences are willing to pay to see." Continuing he added, "While it is still extremely difficult releasing a foreign language film in North America, if you can hook the audience in, a much broader spectrum of audience seems willing to go see them." The challenges, according to O'Connor, are the many choices facing moviegoers. "We were very fortunate that everything came together perfectly with our release of 'Maria Full of Grace', but with release of any film in this ultra-competitive environment you need smarts, good marketing and the gods to shine on you."
Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, praised competitors for their success with the studio film "Spider Man 2," the doc "Fahrenheit 9/11" and Fox Searchlight on "Napoleon Dynamite" ($44.4 million) noting that one of the real battles is for publicity coverage of releases. He noted that "a number of major newspapers are 'lost in translation'" -- they are trying to reinvent their editorial content to connect with a larger younger demographic -- this process has also impacted the entertainment sections of the paper and here is the real rub! The younger set are less influenced by newspapers in making their moviegoing choices and read less. Therefore, it no surprise that newspapers are losing even more of their readers."
"Dynamite" was a big success for Fox Searchlight, which also released "Garden State" ($26.7 million), "Sideways" (more than $22 million so far), and "Kinsey" ($6.7 million so far) in 2004. The "Napoleon Dynamite" numbers were especially heartening for the no-name cast, low-budget film from Sundance '04. The film had industry observers critical of the big Fox deal for the film in Park City.
"From a strictly cinematic point of view, the film is, as they say in French, nul, a void, a zero," wrote Variety's lead critic Todd McCarthy during the festival. "There's no way this film would be well-received at other film festivals, or by international audiences... So it will be very interesting to follow what happens with "Napoleon Dynamite" -- to see if it becomes one of the festival's biggest success stories or merely the latest example of the Sundance Syndrome.
Another Sundance debut, Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" had some folks wondering about its prospects. But the film was a hit, making $11.5 million. Goldwyn's Gottlieb expressed pride in the success that his company, in partnership with Roadside Attractions, saw on "Super Size Me" and "What the Bleep Do We Know?" The latter having just passed the $10 million mark at the box office this week.
"Both films owe their success to great grass roots marketing and terrific press support," he said, "In addition both films had and continue to deliver a lot of crowd pleasing entertainment along with relevant life changing/affirming information. We are proud that both films made significant social/cultural changes in the environment and for millions of moviegoers." Eric d'Arbeloff and Howard Cohen from Roadside noted, with regard to "Super Size Me," "The film caught a wave of publicity about McDonald's and about obesity in general, and Morgan turned out to be a fantastic on-air spokesman for the film and the issues touched on in the film. We were able to take advantage of both of these factors to drive the performance beyond expectations."
D'Arbeloff and Cohen noted a few challenges. "Too many films opening every weekend and the constant 'noise' in the marketplace; competing for the good specialized screens and getting long enough runs once you get them; rising cost of advertising; studio specialized divisions driving prices to levels where the films can no longer make a profit, and finding good films, period!" Citing new challenges, they added, "The attractiveness of home theatres combined with DVD's has made theatrical distribution seriously more challenging in a very short time period. This is especially true for the 25-45 audience which is the bread and butter audience for independent films. What makes a film "theatrical" (and for Roadside Attractions we define that as capable of generating $1 million minimum at the U.S. box) has got to be more narrowly defined than ever."
Gottlieb's disappointment in '04 was the performance of the Samuel Goldwyn release, "Rosenstrasse." It made a bit more than $727,000. Gottlieb said that a challenge was getting press to cover the movie. "A number of editors believe that the Holocaust is no longer newsworthy. I heard reporters tell me that their papers were on a 'Holocaust diet'. This attitude seemed to infect some critics as well. Shame on all of you!"
D'Arbeloff and Cohen's disappointment was the gay marriage doc, "Tying the Knot." It made just $40,576 in theaters. They said, "We mistakenly thought the gay community would really support (it). The film got excellent reviews but we think now in hindsight that maybe gay people thought it would be depressing and 'medicinal,' because it shows how far we have to go to achieve equality."
That said, the duo is optimistic about the future. "It's a great time to be in independent film," they said via email, "Studios are churning out more and more standardized fare for global consumption, and audiences in general, and upscale audiences in particular, are exhausted by them. 'The Passion', 'Fahrenheit', and 'Super Size Me' are spectacular demonstrations of this and I know more are coming."