On the ‘Whale’ trail

New Zealand import looks likely to break $15 mil before wrapping up theatrical run

It’s summer and distribution whiz Bob Berney is at it again. Last year, he and the team at IFC Films got “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” on track toward an eventual $241 million cume. In 2001, Berney was the force behind producer Newmarket’s self-release of “Memento,” which grossed $25 million.

This year, Berney — in charge of Newmarket’s year-old distribution division — returns with “Whale Rider.” Now in its 12th week of release, the New Zealand import about a Maori girl’s coming of age looks likely to break $15 million before wrapping up its theatrical run.

Newmarket decided on a summer 2003 release immediately after acquiring the film at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall. The June 6 opening, which was locked in by the first of the year, paid off. It landed in arthouses bolstered by positive reviews and a slew of fest kudos (including audience awards at Sundance, Toronto and Rotterdam). And, crucially, there was little competition in the upscale market.

“If ‘Seabiscuit’ and ‘Swimming Pool’ had come out the same weekend, we wouldn’t have gotten the front page of the L.A. Times film section,” says Berney.

Platform player

With word of mouth going strong and solid arthouse per-screen averages, Newmarket decided to platform out quickly in the fourth week. “Our print run was about as aggressive as ‘Memento,’ but with an audience closer to ‘Greek Wedding,'” Berney explains. “We wanted to expand early, because ‘Swimming Pool’ was our main upcoming specialty competition and it wasn’t going out until July 4.”

Despite a small dip in its sixth week, weekly grosses continued to rise, with Newmarket adding at least 40 screens a week throughout the second month.

” ‘Whale Rider’ appeals not only to the core adult audience that goes to arthouse movies — it’s also one of the few art films that can bring your kids to. That’s rare,” says Laemmle Theaters VP Greg Laemmle, who booked pic on three of his loop’s screens and four other theaters through Laemmle’s independent booking service.