"Brokeback Mountain" seems to have everything going for it: great reviews, a remarkable opening weekend and dominance in the first wave of the Hollywood awards season, underscored Tuesday by seven Golden Globe nominations, the most of any film.
But there's one important landmark the film has yet to reach -- roping in a mass audience.
Over the next several weeks, the movie about two handsome young cowboys falling in love with each other -- dubbed by some wags the gay "Gone With the Wind" -- will be released across the United States in cities where its themes of repressed sexuality and cultural intolerance may prove a tougher sell than they have in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with their concentrations of cineastes and gay and lesbian populations.
"Brokeback Mountain's" future in the heartland will offer a classic test of whether what the movie business considers its best work will be embraced by audiences whose values may be more conservative than Hollywood's. In some ways, "Brokeback" could prove a counterpoint to the phenomenal success of last year's "The Passion of the Christ," a film disparaged by Hollywood power brokers and many film critics that still emerged as a blockbuster.
The controversial cowboy movie, which is rated R in part for its sexuality, also is hitting theaters at a time when filmmakers and studio executives are worried they are losing touch with audiences, as reflected by a yearlong box-office slump.
At least one national theater owner said he believed "Brokeback Mountain's" appeal would not be limited to major metropolitan cities.
"Between the controversy and the reviews, 'Brokeback Mountain' is becoming a 'must-see' movie of the year," said Jerry Pokorski, executive vice president and chief film buyer for Pacific Theatres and ArcLight Cinemas, which has about 400 theaters across the country. "Maybe in Wichita Falls it will be a different story, but I still believe that good reviews -- and good films -- drive the business."
Outside of big cities, movies that generate great reviews don't always play strongly.
This year, "Capote" attracted consistently good reviews but has grossed $10.4 million in about 200 theaters. Within movies that have gay themes, the stronger the sexuality, the weaker the films tend to perform. Although toned-down gay-themed movies such as "The Birdcage" and "Philadelphia" were hits, the far more explicit -- and Oscar-winning -- transgender drama "Boys Don't Cry" sold $11.5 million in tickets.
"I really don't think America is ready for a homosexual love story like this," said Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy at the conservative Family Research Council in Washington. "I'm sure it has a great deal of appeal within the Hollywood community itself, which is already committed to a pro-homosexual ideology, but I can't see it as a big box-office success."
Added Dave Bossie, who was the executive producer of the anti-Michael Moore documentary "Celsius 41.11" and heads the conservative grass-roots organization Citizens United: " 'Brokeback' will not only encounter resistance, but empty theaters. My wife and I watched the trailer in a theater a few days ago and sensed an audible revulsion to two men passionately embracing and kissing on the big screen.
"Blue-collar workers [and] predominantly heterosexual women are not going to pay to see this story in large numbers. The conservative audience that made 'The Passion of the Christ' so successful will be the death knell for 'Brokeback Mountain.' "
A theater owner in Tennessee says early interest has been running high.
"E-mails are running 50 to 1 in favor of the film -- and not just from" gay and lesbian organizations, said Jeff Kaufman, vice president of film for Malco Theatres in Memphis, Tenn. The family-owned chain has about 300 screens in small towns such as Blytheville, Ark.; Owensboro, Ky.; and Oxford, Miss.
" 'Brokeback' is a high-quality film, a terrific picture, and there seems to be broad-based interest," Kaufman said. "A gay theme certainly didn't hurt 'The Birdcage,' which had great commercial success."
On Friday, the film, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, will open on two screens in a theater in Plano, Texas, outside Dallas.
"We've sold about 40 tickets over the Internet for the Friday screening, more than for any other movie we are showing, including 'King Kong,' " said Terrell Falk, vice president of marketing and communications for Cinemark USA Inc., which has about 2,000 screens in 200 theaters, primarily in Utah, Ohio, California and Texas.
Interest in acclaimed titles typically fades once a town's core film fans have come and gone.
Still, novelist Larry McMurtry, who with co-screenwriter Diana Ossana adapted Annie Proulx's short story into "Brokeback Mountain," says the film's examination of secret love in the wilds of Wyoming should hold universal appeal.
"People seem to like it -- it's striking them in their hearts and in their gut," said McMurtry, the author of "Lonesome Dove."
Robin Glasscock, a bartender at the Proud Cut Saloon in Cody, Wyo., said she planned to go see the movie with her friends.
"I don't know how this community would respond to it," she said. "It's a pretty conservative type of place. I certainly hope they wouldn't be [offended by the movie]. I think it's something they should see regardless."
"Brokeback Mountain" will need to get those kinds of intrepid moviegoers if it is to become a breakout independent film hit on the order of "March of the Penguins" or "The English Patient."
The film's producer and distributor, Focus Features, said it was encouraged that audience surveys showed that ticket buyers in the opening weekend included a significant (but unspecified) number of straight men who came with their girlfriends or wives.
Focus Co-President James Schamus said the stereotype of the "Middle American who votes Republican and runs screaming from the theater at the thought of this movie is being exploded as we speak."
He said: "People keep asking us, 'Is the country ready for 'Brokeback Mountain?' The question should be, 'Are we able to handle the interest in this movie?' "
The film's director, Ang Lee, said he was surprised by how warmly the film had been received so far.
"We thought it was going to be split, and some people would like it and some wouldn't even go to see it, or it would be a laughingstock, like when they call it 'a gay cowboy' movie," Lee said. "Then when they see it, they start to embrace it. It's a wonderful turnaround."
Focus Co-President David Linde said it took time for people to embrace this kind of movie. By slowly releasing the film, he said, Focus hopes to build its word-of-mouth.
"This movie cannot be condensed into one line about gay cowboys," Linde said. "In our marketing, we are trying to get across the depth of the experience."
Not every theater owner is bullish about the film's ultimate prospects.
"I think 'Brokeback,' like "The Aviator' and 'Rent,' will do better in the cities, where audiences are more diverse and have more interest in seeing a film with a narrower focus," said Carlo Petrick, communications manager for Marcus Theatre Corp., based in Milwaukee.
"I don't expect a backlash. It's not about turning people off, but the degree of interest in seeing a love story between two men, if it comes down to choosing between 'King Kong' and 'Brokeback,' people who go to the movies to be entertained will probably choose the former."
Times staff writers Rachel Abramowitz and John Horn contributed to this report.