Could 'Behind the Candelabra' have been successful as a movie?

"Behind the Candelabra," the Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, garnered 2.4 million viewers in its premiere Sunday on HBO. The Steven Soderbergh-directed television movie was a huge hit for the cable network -- giving it its best audience since the 2004 movie "Something the Lord Made."

Soderbergh has been quite candid about the film's long road to the small screen; it originally was intended as a feature film, but those plans fell apart when Warner Bros. lost interest.


According to a recent interview Soderbergh did with The Times, Warner Bros. concluded it would have had to spend $25 million to make and market the film, a number that would have required the studio to earn at least $60 million in its theatrical release.

But would that be so hard?

We're not claiming to be studio marketing executives using finely calibrated statistics. But with some very simplistic arithmetic, we could extrapolate that those 2.4 million viewers could translate into $19.2 million, if we used the average theatrical ticket price of $8. (Since the film would surely be rated R, the ticket price should be higher since children wouldn't be attending.)

And that number is just for one showing. Should you add the second screening of the two-hour movie, the number grows to 3.5 million, or $28 million.

Surely television viewers and moviegoers aren't equitable, in that you must figure in the extra want-to-see factor for movies watched outside of the home. (It's far easier to flip on the television than secure a baby-sitter.) Plus, you have to figure in the splits with movie theaters that see only half the profits filtering into the studios' coffers.

But if that many viewers were interested in watching Jason Bourne and Gordon Gekko don copious amounts of sequins as they fall in love, wouldn't they be equally compelled to do so for a big-screen debut?

Factor in the extra push the film received from its Cannes premiere -- which treated the movie like a feature -- and the risks seem even more negligible.

In an era when studios will either spend hundreds of millions, or pocket change,  to make a movie -- but nothing in between -- it's understandable why they wouldn't take a chance on "Candelabra." It's just a shame that they wouldn't. There's clearly an audience out there for sophisticated filmmaking, particularly among older viewers (like the ones who would remember Liberace).

A screen test between Douglas and Damon should have been enough to prove to the suits at the studio that this was a risk worth taking.