Kudos season pix need brisk buzz to break into boffo wide releases

“Casanova,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The New World,” and “The Producers” were all hits … before they were misses.

It’s an annual tradition for year-end films with designs on Oscar to platform at a handful of locations and then widen as they build awards buzz. Not all of them work. But this past year has seen a surprising number of films that opened to boffo per-play grosses on a few (or even a few hundred) screens, only to flatline when put into wide release.

Of course, judging a film’s success before it hits homevideo and without detailed budget knowledge is an inexact science. But it’s undeniable that the season’s results call into question the studios’ perennial strategy of crowding review-driven, award-hopeful pics into such a small timeframe, particularly when there are so many of them.

“The crowding of the marketplace is a serious challenge,” says New Line domestic distrib prexy David Tuckerman. “But things are getting so crowded year round that it’s always a challenge.”

The challenge for a prestige release is to find its way into the national conversation and become the rare zeitgeist pic that the nation is talking about. Last season, “Brokeback Mountain” was the one movie that exploded into the culture.

And if the nation’s cultural conversation is a limited space, that means there simply wasn’t room for many other pics to be talked about.

“The difficult reality of dealing with smart films is that timing is everything,” says Focus Features distrib topper Jack Foley. “One or two films hit the zeitgeist and they are almost like a vacuum cleaner. Even if you think your film is the beautiful baby, you need to know how you’re going to manage when the public doesn’t care.”

Sony’s “Geisha,” for instance, had the second highest per-theater average of the year when it made $682,500 from eight playdates on Dec. 9. Flash forward two weeks, and the $85 million pic made just $10 million in its first wide weekend and only recently broke the $50 million mark.

New Line’s “The New World” grossed $57,000 on three screens in just two days after opening Christmas Sunday, but managed only $4 million when it went wide Jan. 27.

“This Christmas season was even tougher, because the studios were releasing upscale, sophisticated pictures as well as mainstream ones, which makes it very tough for independent companies,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker. “If the studios were mainly just releasing movies like ‘Meet the Fockers,’ as they have other Christmases, it would have been different.”

In some cases, jumping from limited to wide release can signal the end of pic’s B.O. prospects. Despite landing multiple Oscar noms, “Capote” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” did little business when they expanded wide last weekend. However, both pics had already steadily built healthy box office cumes — $18 million and $27 million respectively — over the previous four months on a few hundred playdates.

Other movies haven’t even gained enough momentum to make it wide. The Weinstein Co.’s “Mrs. Henderson Presents” and Sony Classics’ “The White Countess” have struggled to gain traction on a relatively small number of screens.

Studios are finding ways around the year-end crunch. “Crash” opened at the beginning of Hollywood’s summer against “Kingdom of Heaven” in early May and went on to gross $53 million. After wins at the SAG and WGA awards, it’s a player for several Oscars, including best picture. (Of course, sending 130,000 screeners didn’t hurt.)

Focus Features bowed “The Constant Gardener” wide over Labor Day at a time when nothing else was out for sophisticated moviegoers, grossing a healthy $33 million domestically (and, eventually, a Golden Globe win and Oscar nom for supporting actress Rachel Weisz).

Of course, it’s all relative. The strategies are very different for studios and indies. While $55 million is a disappointment to Sony on “Geisha,” Focus already has the indie hit of the year on its hands with the $60 million-and-counting “Brokeback Mountain” (which cost only $16 million).

Focus opened its cowboy love story at just five playdates on Dec. 9, with a plan to slow down or speed up expansion depending on how the potentially controversial pic played. Thus far, “Brokeback” has played underneath the season’s blockbusters, racking up solid grosses without hitting the top of the B.O charts (save for three weekdays after its Golden Globes victories).

If the film hadn’t caught on, studio could have tried to ride the pic’s core aud to a gross in the mid-teens, as DreamWorks has done with the relatively successful “Match Point.”

But when a big studio is spending $40 million or $80 million on a prestige pic, a wide release is necessary to make a profit. And in that case, a limited bow seems to provide little more than bragging rights.

“On ‘Geisha,’ we felt that the materials and film would garner very strong opening numbers and that would help to support it,” says Sony distrib topper Rory Bruer.

In other words, at a time when the media are obsessed with grosses, getting ink for a boffo perf on a limited basis can help with marketing. And when the film is backed by a studio-sized marketing push, as “Geisha” and “Casanova” are, it’s not that hard to achieve.

But as those pics showed, good reviews and word of mouth in New York and L.A. don’t necessarily create a hit in the rest of the country.

And in some cases, it can even make things worse. U’s “Producers” tuner adaptation did solid business when it bowed in limited, but started racking up mostly negative reviews early, so that by the time it opened wide over Christmas, the pic was in even worse shape.

Most industryites point to “American Beauty” as the ultimate example of a prestige pic that artfully managed its release for maximum gain. Pic opened in September 1999 and ultimately grossed $130 million over a 38-week run in which it never took more than $10 million in a single weekend. Pic started at 16 theaters, went wide, fell all the way to seven playdates, and then jumped up again to nearly 2,000 around the Oscars before finally fading.

“On ‘American Beauty,’ it was a good thing we didn’t open wide because it would have gone in and out of smaller markets before word of mouth got out,” notes DreamWorks distrib prexy Jim Tharp. “But if you’re less confident in the word of mouth, you’re better off going wide initially so if it doesn’t play well, at least you got some people the first weekend.”

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