Unlike the journey of a boy and his cheetah, the theatrical conclusion for "Duma" seems destined to be more bitter than sweet.
Its producers are keeping their fingers crossed, but despite generally rave reviews in big city newspapers, including the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and this newspaper, among others, Warner Bros. is not convinced there is an audience for "Duma," which arrived last weekend in Los Angeles and New York after trial runs in other markets.
Director Carroll Ballard's lyrical adventure about a boy's quest to return a tame cheetah to the wild in South Africa took in $105,422 in 42 theaters (a pair in New York and the rest in Los Angeles), averaging $2,510 per venue -- compared with $3,879 for "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," a heavily promoted film with a big TV campaign that opened in 41 locations.
"Duma," which cost $12 million to make, has taken in $722,832 to date, according to the box office tracking service Nielsen EDI, since opening in April in San Antonio, Sacramento and Phoenix, the only cities where Warner Bros. advertised the film on TV.
"All three markets underperformed substantially," said Dan Fellman, president of distribution at Warner Bros. "Kids had no interest; adults thought it was for kids."
Armed with positive reviews, however, the filmmakers, including producer Hunt Lowry and marketing consultant Jeff Dowd, remained convinced the film would appeal to families in upscale markets.
In August, "we opened in five of the most upscale theaters in Chicago and lost money on our engagement," Fellman countered, in spite of "great critical acclaim from Roger Ebert" and other area critics.
Neither the Chicago engagements nor those in Los Angeles and New York were supported with TV campaigns. Several publications have reported that producer John Wells footed the bill for print ads to help persuade the studio to book the film in the two theaters in New York. Wells could not be reached to comment on those reports.
"In one theater in New York we did $600 on Friday and $800 in the other, so it totally underperformed, and it's time to move on," Fellman said.
At the Grove in L.A., the film took in more than $6,000 last weekend, and the AMC in Santa Monica took in more than $8,000, a source with access to the numbers said.
Some publications have compared the film's studio experience to "A Little Princess" and "Iron Giant," two other Warner Bros. family releases that famously failed to reach a broad audience in theaters despite widespread critical acclaim.
Some wonder whether the result might have been different had the film been handled by Disney or DreamWorks, which is gearing up to release another child and animal film called "Dreamer," in which Lowry coincidentally was involved.
"As well as parents taking their kids," Dowd said, "there is a distinct adult audience going without kids," likening the appeal for "Duma" to "March of the Penguins," one of the year's surprise hits that was handled by Warner Independent Pictures, a division of Warner Bros. "Part of the success of 'March of the Penguins' is due to that distinct adult audience."
"The Warner Bros. team is a phenomenally successful group. My hope is this will be a big thing at the holiday season if we can all regroup," Dowd said. "To put a new trailer, a review trailer, on 'Harry Potter' at Christmas," he feels, "would be worth $30 million or more, now that we have so many great reviews."
With the number of bookings shrinking to 36 this weekend, the film's time in theaters may be running out, but those involved with "Duma" haven't given up.
"The producers are fighting very hard to keep the movie alive," Dowd said. "I think this weekend is very key," Lowry said hopefully. "It's up to word of mouth."