'The Blind Side' writes a new playbook

Hollywood blockbusters aren't usually born in movie theaters in Dallas, Birmingham or Nashville. But that's exactly where “The Blind Side” has taken off -- a show-business phenomenon driven by audiences in the South and Midwest storming to a movie about Christian charity and football that stars Sandra Bullock.

In one of the more extraordinary box-office stories of the year, writer-director John Lee Hancock’s movie about Baltimore Ravens lineman Michael Oher -- who as a homeless black teen was taken in and nurtured by a well-off, churchgoing white couple -- nearly toppled the smash sequel "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" at multiplexes in both films' second weekend of release. Its ticket sales grew by 18% -- the first time this year that a movie in wide release saw its domestic gross grow on its second weekend -- while those for the teen vampire drama plummeted by 70%.

"The Blind Side" has surpassed $100 million in domestic sales, with $200 million- plus now considered a certainty by executives at distributor Warner Bros. Independent studio Alcon Entertainment financed the movie at a cost of just $35 million.

Runaway hits usually generate their highest grosses in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, but "The Blind Side" is performing exceptionally well miles from those urban hubs: The film's five highest-grossing theaters this weekend were in Sacramento, Dallas, Birmingham, Ala. and Nashville.

"Those theaters are almost never even in the top 20," said Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros.

The smaller the town, it seems, the bigger the demand to see the movie.

"It performed well everywhere, but it's doing best in smaller communities, not in big cities," said Robert Bagby, the president of B&B Theatres, a small chain with 30 theaters in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Florida.

On its first weekend, nearly 60% of attendees were women, who also turned out in droves to see Bullock in this summer's hit romantic comedy "The Proposal."

But it appears that the audience for "The Blind Side" broadened after the holiday, driven by extraordinary word of mouth (it was only the second film this year, along with "Up," to garner an A-plus grade from moviegoers, according to market research firm CinemaScore).

"We saw a lot of families coming together over the holiday weekend," said Bagby.

With little strong competition on the horizon for next weekend, "The Blind Side" could well be the nation's No. 1 film in its third weekend of release.

The film, which has been a conversation topic with some on-air announcers, is playing strongly as millions of Americans are focused on pro and college football. Warner is planning to add screens this weekend in response to demand from theaters.

"We haven't seen another sleeper hit that performed this well in the last calendar year," said Meghan Vincent, the director of communications for Santikos Theatres, which has seven theaters in Texas, all of which sold more tickets to "The Blind Side" than "New Moon."

Alcon initially thought overseas box office prospects for the movie were minimal given its focus on the America-centric sport of football. But its top executives are meeting with Warner Bros. this week to plan an international release starting early next year.

"We're thrilled with the U.S. numbers and think those will help us to sell it internationally," said Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, president of international distribution for Warner Bros.

Hancock, whose previous movie "The Alamo" was a critical and commercial dud, said he was always confident the story would have wide appeal, particularly because he labored not to make its protagonists -- Bullock plays the Memphis decorator, Leigh Anne Tuohy, who rescues Oher -- cut-out caricatures.

"I felt the movie would play as well in New York as it would in Portland as in Tallahassee," Hancock said. "There may be some aspects to the real life of the Tuohys -- they're a Christian family that's portrayed as normal, which Hollywood doesn't have a great track record with. Hollywood tends to be very lazy in its portrayal of a lot of would-be stereotypes. Whether it's Southern Christian families or New York cab drivers.

"There's an easy, lazy way to do it, which is, just rely on stereotypes and throw it into theaters. I hope the movie dashed that stereotype in some ways, that Leigh Anne has to be the Church Lady from 'Saturday Night Live' or something."

Terry Mattingly, a religion columnist for Scripps Howard News Service and the director of the Christian-oriented Washington Journalism Center, believes that "The Blind Side" is working with audiences because the film's Christian back story is neither gratuitous nor didactic.

"What makes a movie like this important to me is that it doesn't slap people in the face with religion," Mattingly said. "Most films from Hollywood that involve faith take out all the details -- it's just vague and mushy or it's negative religious stereotypes.

"But 'The Blind Side' is a real movie. And then it has another factor: showing respect for religious motivations and emotions. So you have people lining up."

It's the second hit of the year for the 45-year-old Bullock, who not long ago was starring in quickly forgotten works such as "Premonition," "Murder by Numbers" and "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous." With "The Proposal" (domestic gross: $164 million) and "The Blind Side," Bullock has now emerged as one of the town's most reliable box-office stars (though this summer's "All About Steve" was a dud).

There's even talk among some in Hollywood about possible awards recognition for Bullock.

"I always felt Sandy was underappreciated as a dramatic actress," Hancock said. "She hasn't been given the credit she's owed."

Tuohy, who on Monday night was putting up Christmas decorations in Oher's Baltimore home, said she can't really explain why the movie is doing as well as it is. "We never thought any of this was ever going to happen," she said. But she has her suspicions about the film's appeal.

"It's a word-of-mouth thing. People tell other people and they want to experience something good and happy. I think that's really appealing to the masses," she said.

And at a time when so many people are struggling, Tuohy added, the movie tells people that putting faith into action has never been more important.

"There are a lot of people in this country who do nice things for others," she said. "If you love the Lord, you do what you need to do. Talk is cheap."

ben.fritz@latimes.com

john.horn@latimes.com

Times staff writer Chris Lee contributed to this report.

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