Pic/history tour nabs unexpected audience

LONDON — On paper, Russian helmer Alexander Sokurov’s artsy “Russian Ark” was a resoundingly un-commercial proposition.

What it has become is a one-shot wonder.

Who would have thought a digital video pic chronicling 300 years of Russian history in one uncut 90-minute shot inside St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum would outgross films with the typical arthouse draws of sex, French girls, Italian boys, sunshine, seashores and Oscars?

Since its limited NYC opening last October, “Ark” has taken $3 million at the U.S. B.O. and is nudging the $6 million mark worldwide.

To put that in perspective, foreign-lingo pics — even those boosted by critical acclaim and the aforementioned assets — generally settle in at around $1 million theatrical in the U.S.

The Oscar-nominated “Man Without a Past” garnered $900,000 while the lauded (and topless) Valeria Golino drama “Respiro” hauled in $936,000.

“We’ve recouped from theatrical, which is very unusual,” says Wendy Liddell of Wellspring Media, the film’s U.S. distributor.

The film’s deemed lack of appeal ensured low territory distribution fees, and while the exact terms weren’t forthcoming, the general consensus is low-five figures. So “recoup” would be something of an understatement.

But in retrospect, the low fees made complete sense.

Initial screenings at Cannes 2002 indicated a quick demise:

“No one liked it at all. Most people walked out, they got bored with it,” recalls Robert Beeson, director of Artificial Eye, the film’s U.K. distributor. “Ark” has netted another dazzling $734,427 in that territory.

But Liddell says response from screenings at consumer fests provided hints of a surprise hit.

“We had a New York Film Fest screening and people left elated, generating word of mouth,” recalls Liddell. “It became the art film hit of the moment.”

It turns out that the one-shot element that might have turned viewers off actually turned them on.

“The one-shot was a clear hook, so we targeted cinephiles, film students, filmmakers,” says Liddell. As such, the film’s bewildering historical angle didn’t immediately kill off interest.

“Ark’s” history tour also brought an unexpected audience to the fore.

“We found that our audience was also composed of the much older Russian emigre population,” says Liddell. “The better grounded that audiences were in Russian history, the more rapturous they were.”

Though impressive, the film’s excellent B.O. performance is seen by Wellspring as the warm-up.

“Video is where we see the profits,” says Liddell.

The DVD is slated for a Sept. 4 release, and Liddell reports that Wellspring as already sold 10,000 units.

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