Smaller films make a bigger footprint

Specialty biz enjoys summer heat wave but faces hurdles in exhibition, promotion

Tracking the tentpoles is an obsession for box office analysts, but the launches of two non-tentpoles, “Hope Springs” and “The Campaign,” also now rivets their attention.

The two films are a study in contrasts, but here’s what they have in common: Both are basically specialty films that are being accorded tentpole-like releases and marketed with somewhat misleading ad campaigns.

“Hope Springs,” starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, was reviewed as “a serious adult drama” by Entertainment Weekly but is being advertised as a hilarious comedy. “The Campaign,” from Jay Roach, is an arch political satire ridiculing the conservative right but is being sold as a sort of “Hangover” sequel.

In past times both films would have had platform releases providing time to build word of mouth, but that pattern doesn’t work for today’s hypercaffeinated distributors. Hence “Hope Springs” opens at 2,361 locations and “The Campaign” at 3,250, with both competing against the newest “Bourne” iteration, which opens even wider.

While the majors’ guns are blazing, the traditional specialty business (I always preferred the term “arthouse”) is experiencing a strong summer. Ted Mundorff, president of the Landmark chain, reports that box office at his upmarket theaters has improved a few points from last summer thanks to stellar B.O. for releases like “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and even Woody Allen’s lame comedy “To Rome With Love.”

To be sure, the arthouse business has been hurt lately by the Olympics and the Colorado shootings. But two films, “The Intouchables” and “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” have turned into international breakout hits that together could approach $600 million in worldwide box office.

Circuits like Landmark also stand to benefit from “Hope Springs” and “The Campaign” but are nonetheless irritable about their wide releases. Even an arthouse film like “Ruby Sparks” is playing in several locations in major cities, diluting their audiences.

Issues relating to release patterns and clearances have long been an issue for arthouse theater owners — indeed, one such owner, actor Bryan Cranston, is suing a major circuit, charging that it has bullied distributors to keep certain movies from his theater.

Cranston, the star of the “Breaking Bad” TV series, owns the Cinemas Palme d’Or in Palm Desert, Calif., together with Steve Mason, a radio host. Their 10 screens this week are showing films ranging from “The Magic of Belle Isle” to “Moonrise” and “Exotic Marigold.”

Cranston says he became an arthouse exhibitor because “when I was a kid, I dreamed about being able to see any movie I wanted — and getting free tickets.” He admits the “free” part hasn’t worked out.

While Palme d’Or has won a loyal following of serious cinema fans in the Palm Springs area, Cranston claims Cinemark, which owns the Century Theaters multiplex three miles away, often prevents his theater from screening major movies like “The Dark Knight Rises.” The case has bounced around the courts for five years, but after a court of appeals ruling this year it is now headed for a jury trial in Santa Monica Superior Court. Tom Boeder, the attorney on the case, asserts that he has won previous “unfair competition” cases involving the big circuits and is optimistic about winning this one.

Cranston remains a determined arthouse exhibitor. His company has invested $400,000 in digital upgrades, has started serving wine and beer at over-21 screenings and regularly invites stars and filmmakers to speak at the Palme d’Or when their films are shown — Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton were just there to talk about their film “Ruby Sparks.”

Cranston has played supporting roles in “John Carter,” “Rock of Ages” and “Total Recall,” mindful of the fact that none of those films would necessarily play well with his Palme d’Or audience. His next film, “Argo,” directed by and starring Ben Affleck, will do better at his theater, Cranston predicts.

“We’ve got to pay the bills to keep our playthings,” says Cranston, sounding a bit like the chaotic character he depicts in “Breaking Bad.”

Would the Palme d’Or want to book “Hope Springs”? Since the typical filmgoer at the theater is in his 50s, a geriatric sex drama would clearly play well. That is, if the nearby Century complex doesn’t monopolize it.