Niche pix enjoy surprising success

While “King Kong,” “Harry Potter” and “Narnia” battle it out at the international wickets for year-end supremacy, most serious-minded specialty pics have gone into hiding abroad. But one is casting itself as a David to such Goliaths.

After the all-sugar diet of f/x-heavy seasonal spectacles, Focus Features’ “The Constant Gardener” has very quietly managed to harvest an audience overseas. Pic is based on the novel by John le Carre and directed by “City of God” helmer Fernando Meirelles.

Since its international release, Ralph Fiennes-Rachel Weisz starrer has picked up a tidy $18.9 million from seven UIP markets plus more than $5 million in non-UIP territories. The modestly budgeted drama has cumed $57 million worldwide and should eclipse $65 million with several major territories still not opened yet.

“The Constant Gardener” hasn’t been alone among niche pics that have achieved significant traction this year from foreign audiences. Another quintent of decidedly non-tentpole films — “March of the Penguins,” “Crash,” “A History of Violence,” “Broken Flowers” and “Pride & Prejudice” — have all taken advantage of strong critical response to tap international markets, each topping well over $20 million in offshore grosses this year.

None of the pics reported spectacular grosses when they opened domestically, but managed instead to post far more impressive numbers by the end of their runs. Pics succeeded via the slow-and-steady strategy, employing strong word of mouth plus critical plaudits.

“Penguins” has been the best performer with worldwide grosses topping $113 million, including $36 million from foreign markets. Top offshore territories have been France ($11.4 million), where the story features the birds with speaking parts, along with Germany ($7.8 million) and Japan ($7.7 million).

Not surprisingly for a landmark English story, “Pride & Prejudice” has turned in solid U.K. results of more than $26 million, nearly matching the $31 million U.S. gross. Germany’s added $6.8 million and Australia’s chipped in with $5.2 million. Worldwide gross stands at $73 million.

“Crash,” quietly propelled by laudatory reviews, took in an impressive $53 million domestically after a mild opening weekend of $9.1 million at 1,864 playdates. The ensemble drama also showed strength in overseas markets, led by $10.8 million from the U.K., and has a worldwide cume of $81 million.

“Broken Flowers” has grossed $39 million worldwide, mostly thanks to overseas patrons. It’s doubled its $13 million domestic take with $26 million from foreign markets.

“A History of Violence,” which performed decently domestically with $31 million, has totaled $53 million worldwide. Best foreign totals — $6.7 million in the U.K., $3.9 million in France, $2.5 million in Spain and a remarkable $1.2 million in Denmark.

Only a few major releases managed the same sort of long-lasting run. Warner’s “Batman Begins,” New Line’s “Wedding Crashers,” U’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Sony’s “Are We There Yet?,” Disney’s “Herbie: Fully Loaded” and its “Sky High” were the only pics among the year’s top 40 that managed to see their final domestic take more than quadruple the opening weekends.

In the case of “The Constant Gardener,” pic’s been riding a wave of awards-season kudos abroad, including seven London Critics Circle noms, pic and thesp honors at the British Independent Film Awards and a Golden Globes pic nom.

As a result, the U.K. has been a highlight for “Gardener,” which has reaped nearly $8 million in the territory and remained in the Blighty top 10 for five weeks.

That showing has come thanks in large part to the project’s Brit cast, which has pushed the pic’s PR campaign at the London Film Festival and two international junkets.

“Gardener” is sowing its seeds in a year when U.K. product has worked on home turf, including “Pride & Prejudice,” “Nanny McPhee,” “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” All pics have pitched in to make the territory a bright spot in an otherwise dreary year at the international wickets.

But even in softer spots like Spain and Australia, pic has taken in $5.8 million and $2.3 million, respectively. In helmer Meirelles’ homeland of Brazil, “Gardener” has grown to $1.76 million.

“Gardener” has meanwhile taken in $33.6 million Stateside since its Labor Day rollout for Universal’s Focus, easily outpacing such wide rollouts of adult pics such as Warner Bros.’ “North Country,” Disney’s “Shopgirl,” Fox’s “In Her Shoes,” and Paramount’s “The Weather Man,” “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ” and “Elizabethtown.”

Focus held world rights to “Gardener,” selling off 65% of its territories and letting UIP handle the rest. Germany, France, Italy and Japan have yet to open.

To launch the pic abroad, UIP took Focus’ successful Stateside cues. And the film’s international flavor — Fiennes plays a mild-mannered diplomat who uncovers a scandal in Africa — has paid off for UIP and various local distribs at a time when the major studios are spewing the mantra of greenlighting movies that international auds will embrace.

“We did a very focused ad campaign on the Internet six weeks before the film’s release,” said Focus co-head David Linde of the plans to harvest an aud for the pic here and abroad. “We spent a lot of money in a very concentrated time targeting socially aware people through news and political sites and blogs — places like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Slate, Salon, NPR and the Nation. That really spiked awareness and talk amongst a very influential and vocal group.”

International distribs have adapted the American campaign, including the Internet strategy, to maximize solid notices and word of mouth. Like Focus, overseas distribution has started wide, trying to capture a commercial audience, and then plays down into specialized markets.

Focus marketing head David Brooks says the studio subsid also targeted blogs to hit a “psychographic” of “people who are socially and politically aware.” Internet marketing usually conjures up pictures of fanboys in basements reading Ain’t It Cool News, but Focus used the Net to capture a more sophisticated set.

Meanwhile, other highbrow specialty pics are currently scarce abroad, conceding the marketplace to the apes and wizards of the world.

With awards seeds planted heading into the Oscars, “Gardener” may be able to continue its growth as a hybrid: counterprogramming with stars.

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