'Boys' Is Proving to Be a Hard Sell

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's received more than a dozen awards and nominations, including top national critics' prizes, two Academy Award nominations and a Golden Globe. So why is "Boys Don't Cry" still so difficult to find in theaters around the country?

The answer lies in the bottom-line world of movie distribution, where critical acclaim often does not translate into wide theatrical release or money at the box office. The case of "Boys Don't Cry," a sometimes brutal sexually charged drama based on actual events, shows how difficult it is to sell edgy material to audiences outside the urban art-house crowd.

The Fox Searchlight film opened Oct. 22 in Los Angeles and New York to strong reviews, particularly for its lead actress, Hilary Swank. Since then "Boys" has been seen in only very limited release, from 25 screens initially to 116 in the wake of the Golden Globes win and Oscar nominations to 183 screens as of last weekend.

In Los Angeles "Boys" played in only two theaters for months; now it's in 23. In comparison, a major studio release often plays on more than 3,000 screens, and popular independent films often play on several hundred. In 22 weeks of release, the film has grossed about $5 million.

Last weekend, the movie brought in $438,000, up 31% from the week before. The film continues to do better in major urban markets, particularly Los Angeles and New York City, Fox Searchlight executives said.

"Boys" deals with the true story of Brandon Teena (nee Teena Brandon), a confused Nebraska teenager raped and killed by two men when they discover she had tricked them--and others in their town, including Brandon's girlfriend, Lana Tisdale--into believing she was a boy.

John Lotter, convicted of killing Brandon Teena and two other witnesses, is scheduled to be put to death in the electric chair April 26, exactly one month after the Oscar ceremony. Accomplice Marvin Nissen was sentenced to life in prison.

The subject matter is disturbing, but "Boys" director Kimberly Peirce says she has received e-mail from filmgoers who said they could relate to many scenes in the movie. For example, she says, young boys from the Bronx, N.Y., wrote to tell her that they identified with Brandon as he picks a fight to protect his girlfriend, and teens from around the country have messaged her to say they are going through the same sexual identity crisis as Brandon.

Peirce says she believes that the film strikes a chord with audiences.

"I think there is an audience out there that is clearly waiting to see the film," Peirce says. "They keep writing to me on my e-mail saying, 'Why can't we see it in my town?' Momentum is super-important, and when the time is here, you have to strike. Clearly there is momentum now."

Even academy members--usually known for their conservative tastes--gave the film a stamp of mainstream approval when they nominated the picture's two leading actresses. After sweeping almost all the major critics' awards and winning the Golden Globe, Swank was nominated for a best actress Oscar for her performance as Brandon and is considered one of the favorites in the category. Chloe Sevigny, who played Tisdale, was nominated for best supporting actress.

If either actress wins, Fox Searchlight plans to widen the film's release, but the studio says it's too early to say how many theaters would show it.

Despite the awards, positive reviews and good word of mouth, "Boys" has had disappointing box office outside the major urban areas, particularly in suburban areas, according to Nancy Utley, Fox Searchlight's marketing director. Some movie fans have complained to the studio and the director that the movie is not playing near them. "Boys" only recently expanded into many markets.

Mainstream audiences seem to have more trouble with the violence than with the transgender theme in "Boys," Utley believes.

"I think the barriers we've encountered so far have less to do with the gender issue than the perception that it is a disturbing portrayal of a real-life event," Utley says. She admits: "We don't know what the limits of the box office are with this movie."

'This Movie Is a Love Story'

Notes Peirce: "If there was any fear of this story, it was because the story is a reflection of the culture of violence that exists in this country. But the story was told in a way that doesn't brutalize the audience. The nominations basically said that this movie is a love story."

At its core, "Boys" is an all-American tale of a young man trying to reinvent himself, out to conquer a new frontier, says Christine Vachon, one of the film's producers.

"In a way he was a traditional Hollywood hero," Peirce says. "He was rebellious like James Dean, innocent like Jimmy Stewart and tragic like Montgomery Clift. That's the whole point underneath what the story was about. It's about a boy reinventing himself to get the girl."

Selling that concept to mainstream audiences may prove difficult, particularly for Fox Searchlight, the independent film arm of Fox studios.

Taking on risky films has traditionally been harder for large studios' smaller distribution outlets. For example, Fox Searchlight did only minimal publicity for last year's "Whiteboys," which dealt with young Midwestern white kids who emulated black drug dealers, and the movie died quickly at the box office.

Even the aggressive smaller studio Miramax (owned by Disney) sold the controversial "Dogma" to Lions Gate Films after early protests about the Kevin Smith film. Lions Gate, an independent distributor that often takes on edgier projects, released the film and it made $30 million, the company's highest-grossing film ever.

But "Boys" presents particular problems because of its sometimes extreme and realistic violence, Vachon says. It's one thing to watch cartoon violence in over-the-top films like "The Terminator" or "The Matrix." It's another to watch a sympathetic character like Brandon be raped and murdered, notes Vachon.

The founder of New York-based Killer Films, Vachon is accustomed to walking her pictures through minefields. Last year she produced "Happiness," which was dumped by its original distributor, October Films, at the behest of parent Universal Pictures out of concern for the film's disturbing stories. Executives at Disney were uncomfortable with another Vachon film, "Kids," which featured graphic teenage sexuality.

Vachon says she agrees with Fox Searchlight's slow roll-out plan for "Boys."

"From people and other filmmakers on the outside looking in, you can ask, 'Why isn't the movie playing in 500 theaters?' " she says. "But I would rather have a movie build as beautifully as 'Boys' did than have it die after a big release. The [David Lynch film] 'Straight Story' and [Steven Soderbergh's] 'The Limey' both got wider quicker, and they are not around anymore. There is a certain degree of frustration, but at least people know about 'Boys' and they want to see it. It's under the skin of the zeitgeist."

Fox Searchlight executives say they have been hoping to put the film into more theaters but that the numbers don't support it.

In the end, Fox Searchlight hopes to make a small profit on the film's theatrical release--"Boys' " budget was just under $2 million--and perhaps make some money on sales from the video, which is scheduled for release on April 18. Often a movie like "Boys" does better on video than on the big screen because "people can fast-forward the parts they don't like," said one studio executive.

"Regardless of whether we make money or not, it's important for us to be in business with these young filmmakers who have something to say," Fox Searchlight's Utley said. "This is something we are proud to be associated with."

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