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‘Beckham,’ the little import that could

Times Staff Writer

Gurinder Chadha was walking out of a theater in Houston after a screening of her movie “Bend It Like Beckham,” when an older man wearing a cowboy hat sauntered up to the director.

“Mighty fine movie, young lady,” he told her in his Texas drawl.

Chadha, who had never been to the Lone Star state, thanked the man and asked him what he liked about the romantic comedy set in an Indian immigrant suburb of West London.

“It was intimate,” he said.

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With fans ranging from a Texas cowboy to tweenie soccer players, to Girl Scouts and even a California state legislator who wants to screen it for her colleagues, the little British-Indian export “Bend It Like Beckham” has found an audience in the United States.

Since its release in March, the movie has grossed $20.6 million in theaters nationwide -- surpassing last year’s specialized foreign hits “Monsoon Wedding” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” each of which grossed a little more than $13 million in North America.

Despite strong competition, “Bend It” has managed to hang on in many mainstream theaters throughout the country (although most of its business comes from coastal cities). In Arizona, for example the movie opened exclusively to an art-house crowd and then expanded to some mainstream theaters.

Dan Harkins, owner of Harkins Theatres, the largest theater chain in Arizona, said in three weeks 18,000 people saw the movie at his company’s Scottsdale art house, the Camelview. That’s about four times as many people as the average art-house movie attracts in the same amount of time, he said.

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“It started out as a high-performing, exclusive art film. Then it kept on rolling with the kind of legs I haven’t seen since ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’ ” said Harkins, adding that the movie has benefited mainly from good word of mouth. “Talk around the water cooler at work is far superior to what a movie critic from Chicago or New York says about a movie.”

Although “Beckham,” whose title refers to soccer superstar David Beckham, hasn’t grossed anywhere near the $241 million taken in by “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” there are some similarities. Both films tell ethnic family tales about young women trying to become independent while maintaining their traditions and cultures.

“The thing about Americans is that they really do love movies -- it’s a real movie-loving culture,” said director Chadha, who was born in Kenya but grew up in the West London suburb of Southall. “And they are desperate to see a movie that has their values.... This is a film that appeals to people of all ages and there are not many films that do that.”

In a summer with more R-rated blockbusters than usual, there appears to be a market for family-oriented, nonviolent, non-sexually explicit movies.

Mindy McDermott, publicity director for the mid-continent council of the Girl Scouts USA, organized a screening of “Beckham” for 200 members and their parents in Leawood, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City.

She hoped the PG-13 movie’s themes of rebellion, gay acceptance and finding a boyfriend would go over well with the audience.

“We have a fairly conservative membership ... and so I was a little afraid,” she said. “But the messages were incredibly right on with what that age group experiences. The movie strikes a really great balance ... because it treats the kids as adults but it doesn’t get down to the naked, ugly 17-year-old truth.”

“Beckham” was the first foreign movie -- in English or any other language -- some of the girls had ever seen, said McDermott. Initially, there were a few murmurs in the audience about the heavy accents, but as the movie got going, the audience settled into it, she added.

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The accents were only one of several potential drawbacks for the film’s U.S. distributor, Fox Searchlight. Stephen Gilula, the division’s head of distribution, first saw the film in London last year, where it was doing quite well at the box office.

Gilula, his boss, Searchlight chief Peter Rice, and head of marketing Nancy Utley later saw the movie at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. They bought it for $1.5 million knowing they had to overcome not only the accents but also the soccer theme (a potential turnoff to older art house moviegoers) and the lack of familiarity American audiences have with the South Asian community -- as predominant an immigrant group to the British as Latinos are to Americans.

But Gilula saw how the movie could transcend all of its liabilities after screening it for U.S. distributors at an industry gathering called ShowEast in Orlando, Fla.

“I forewarned everyone that it had tough accents and was difficult to understand,” said Gilula, recalling the October screening. When the movie was over, he said, “this one guy came up to me, misty-eyed, saying it had reminded him of his daughter. The power of the film is its relatability. It creeps up on people, and they don’t realize until the end how deeply they have been hooked.”

The movie was rolled out slowly, opening March 12 in only four cities and six theaters. After nine weeks it expanded to 555 theaters and is still in 494.

The marketers at Searchlight decided on a three-pronged approach, targeting the art house crowd, the South Asian community and soccer fans.

The studio also hired a consultant to market the film to the U.S. Indian population but found that many had already seen it on video. Relatives in London and India, where the movie had already been released, had sent them tapes. In New Delhi, the movie had become so popular it inspired a group of girls to found the “Bend It” soccer league, according to Chadha. In the U.S., the movie has done well in cities with large South Asian populations such as northern New Jersey and in the South Bay area of San Francisco, Gilula said.

The studio zeroed in on the soccer community, screening the movie for the Women’s USA soccer league, the National Soccer Coaches convention in Kansas City, the U.S. Youth Soccer Workshop and Coaches Convention in Indianapolis, professional soccer teams -- like the San Jose Cyber Rays -- and amateur leagues throughout the nation. The studio handed out more than 400,000 soccer ball stickers with the film’s title and 25,000 water bottles, Hackey Sacks, mini-soccer ball radios and soccer shorts with “Bend It Like Beckham” written across the tush.

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Thirteen-year-old Leah Maurer, one of the soccer-playing Girl Scouts who attended the Leawood, Kan., screening, said it was inspiring to her.

“It taught me to never give up and keep on trying and not let people stop you and go for your goals,” she said.

The soccer connection has also caught the attention of California Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), chairwoman of the Legislature’s women’s caucus. She has organized a June 24 screening of the movie for all state legislators and their staffs in honor of the 31st anniversary of Title IX, the landmark federal law that was written to help increase female participation in sports.

Jackson said the movie is particularly timely, considering the Bush administration’s efforts earlier this year to ease the federal policy. (While the law has helped boost women’s athletics in colleges, its critics contend that it has caused men’s programs to be cut back.)

Although the movie is not being used to lobby state legislators on any pending vote, Jackson said, she thought it could serve to show the positive aspects of competitive sports.

“Women’s sports have been a great family boost. Dads and their daughters now can kick around a soccer ball or hit a baseball together,” she said. “We just want to share in the joy and excitement of competition and of seeing women participate in it.”

Meantime, the movie has benefited the careers not only of Chadha and its stars but has raised the U.S. profile of British soccer player Beckham.

The movie’s leads, Parminder Nagra, 28, and Kiera Knightley, 18, have launched Hollywood careers. Nagra landed a role in the cast of next season’s “E.R.” and Knightley is starring in this summer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Chadha will begin filming a Bollywood version of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” in the coming month, which will be released by Miramax in the U.S. next year.

And Beckham? He is currently touring the U.S. promoting soccer and himself.

“People would ask me in America, ‘Who is Beckman?’ ” Chadha said with a laugh. “I would explain to them that David Beckham is the Michael Jordan of English soccer. Well, now people here know he is.”


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