Quite a telling success

Times Staff Writer

Spurred by passionate reviews and fantastic word of mouth, this summer hit has been selling out theaters, sparking intense moviegoer chatter and keeping its distribution team working all hours to meet the demand.

It’s an apt description of “The Dark Knight,” but it’s also the surprising tale of the nearly forgotten French drama “Tell No One,” based on the novel by Harlan Coben. In a year when most art-house films have closed almost as soon as they open, “Tell No One” provides one of the summer’s more remarkable success stories.

Made two years ago and passed over by every prominent distributor of specialized film, “Tell No One” has grossed more than $2.3 million in limited domestic release since July 2 and could eventually sell more than $5 million in tickets at its current pace. Last weekend, the Hitchcockian thriller grossed a mean of $4,898 in its 94 locations -- a better screen average than “Mamma Mia!” and almost as high as “Step Brothers.”

While “Tell No One’s” total take is hardly blockbuster business, it already has brought in more than recent critical favorites “The Foot Fist Way,” “Son of Rambow,” “Baghead” and “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” -- combined.

As is true with any foreign-language film selling lots of tickets, “Tell No One” has performed especially well in major metropolitan cities brimming with film aficionados; the movie has been playing for five weeks at West Los Angeles’ Landmark and has generated long lines in New York.


But the sometimes complicated story about a doctor and his (apparently) murdered wife also has drummed up brisk business in small towns miles from either coast.

“It’s done great,” says Carole Skinner, who runs the Flicks art-house cinema in Boise, Idaho. “The trailer is just dynamite, and we’ve been playing it for about a month.”

“Tell No One” barely made it to American theaters at all. It was first shown to buyers not at a fancy film festival in Berlin, Venice or Toronto, but at the 2006 American Film Market, a Big Lots grab bag of mostly erotic thriller discards and direct-to-video martial arts misfires.

Some buyers were intrigued by the film’s execution -- it’s the second film from 35-year-old French actor Guillaume Canet, who also co-wrote “Tell No One’s” script and costars in the film -- but were scared off by the woeful performance of most contemporary foreign-language releases. For every “La Vie en Rose” or “The Counterfeiters,” there’s a dozen subtitled duds.

“Like a lot of foreign-language films, it’s hard -- especially with the [poor] ancillary revenues” including DVD and television, says Bob Berney of Picturehouse Entertainment, which is distributing the season’s other breakout foreign-language release, “Mongol,” which opened in early June and has grossed $5.4 million so far.

Even though “Tell No One” attracted little buyer interest at the AFM, moviegoers overseas were much keener, especially in France and the United Kingdom. Opening in France in November 2006 and Britain in June 2007, “Tell No One” racked up total overseas grosses in excess of $27 million. It also won four Cesars in February 2007, the French equivalent of the Academy Awards, including best director.

Still, very few American distributors paid attention -- except for one small start-up in Chicago.

The Southport Music Box Corp. runs the Windy City’s two-screen Music Box Theatre, one of the city’s top venues for specialized film. Owner William Schopf, a veteran lawyer and longtime movie fan, decided he needed to expand his movie operations, either by buying more theaters or moving into film distribution, which led to Music Box Films.

Neither of the company’s first two theatrical releases, “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” and “Tuya’s Marriage,” did much business at the box office, grossing about $280,000 and $54,000, respectively. But Schopf and his small team of eight employees believed “Tell No One” could do better.

“We saw how well it had done in France and the U.K.,” Schopf says. Music Box Films spent months acquiring the film’s rights from executive producer Luc Besson (the director of “The Fifth Element”), promising, as Schopf says, “that we were going to give it a first-rate release and go to at least 50 locations, not just in New York, or New York and Los Angeles and then video.”

Schopf’s more daring move was to drop “Tell No One” into the middle of the summer, directly opposite “Hancock” and sandwiched between “Wall-E” and “The Dark Knight.” “It just looked like there was a little bit of a hole in market,” Schopf says.

The critics definitely agreed it was time for something different. Perhaps driven to the brink by the summer’s endless parade of comedies and sequels, reviewers gave “Tell No One” some of the season’s best notices. Audiences started queuing up immediately.

“There seems to be a belief that specialized film is in trouble, but I just don’t think there’s been enough good films,” says Ted Mundorff, whose Landmark Theatres has done steady business in 21 markets with “Tell No One.”

Mundorff says “Tell No One” is being propelled by the audience. “The distributor has spent very little money to get this going,” he says, “but people see the film and then literally congregate outside the doors of the theater to discuss it. We have had to move them out of the way, because they want to talk to someone -- anyone -- who has seen the film.”

What’s especially striking about “Tell No One” is that ticket buyers seem to forget they are watching a foreign-language film. “People who generally don’t get subtitled films lose track of the fact that it’s subtitled,” Schopf says. “And then they really get into it.”