Highbrow films generate high hopes

It’s the time of year when anything seems possible. The Chicago Cubs are not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, your taxes could still yield an unexpected refund and some little art-house movie just might exceed all expectations.

The last is the fantasy shared by any number of independent film distributors as they head into what have been some of the most perilous -- but also potentially rewarding -- weeks in the theatrical release schedule: For every breakout specialized film hit in the late spring and early summer, there are many more crash-and-burn disasters.

Two years ago this week, Overture Films’ “The Visitor” premiered and played through Labor Day, grossing nearly $10 million in limited national release. Last year at this time, the same independent studio introduced " Sunshine Cleaning,” which grossed more than $12 million. But 2009’s spring victims far outnumbered the conquerors, with the bombs including “The Informers,” “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and “The Great Buck Howard,” among countless others.

As the big studios start positioning their summer blockbusters as if they were storming Normandy’s beaches -- Paramount’s “ Iron Man 2,” poised to enjoy one of the highest-grossing premieres ever, lands May 7, with numerous other sequels and remakes on its heels -- the purveyors of highbrow titles are betting that audiences may be interested in something not tied to a comic book.

Although its ultimate performance cannot yet be forecasted, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” could very well be the season’s first big winner.

The first entry in the trilogy of adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling crime novels, “Dragon Tattoo” is off to a fantastic start after premiering March 19. The epic-length foreign-language movie (it runs 152 minutes and is in Swedish) about a serial killer and the unusual couple pursuing him grossed $335,000 in its first weekend in just 34 locations. Its take grew to $456,000 in its third weekend of release in 87 locations, for total receipts for distributor Music Box Films of more than $1.4 million to date.

The film seems certain to surpass Music Box’s previous foreign-language sensation, 2008’s " Tell No One,” which opened in July and was still in theaters after Christmas, grossing $6.2 million along the way. Several competing distributors say the sometimes gothic and graphically violent “Dragon Tattoo” should surpass $10 million, a very rare feat for an overseas title -- only “The Lives of Others” and “La Vie en Rose” have passed that mark in the last three years.

“The fact of the matter is the book is so popular that the performance of the film defies the pattern for the normal foreign-language film,” says Music Box’s Ed Arentz.

Unlike the painfully patient release for “Tell No One,” Music Box is adding more markets to “Dragon Tattoo’s” release schedule at a faster pace, fearful it may lose screens once summer starts.

“It’s important to play as widely as possible in a major metropolitan area because those locations may not be available to you in a month,” Arentz says. Music Box will release the next two films in the series in July (“The Girl Who Played With Fire”) and October (“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”).

While Music Box is benefiting from the immense recognition for Larsson’s books, Apparition experienced different results for “The Runaways,” the Joan Jett biography that stars one of the hottest young actors around, " Twilight’s” Kristen Stewart.

Apparition released the movie in 244 locations in just 10 cities on March 19, a concentrated release plan intended to hit both commercial multiplexes and art houses in major markets.

The idea was to try to attract some of Stewart’s “Twilight” fans while also hitting upscale (and older) film geeks, but the former’s tween girl audience (partially deterred by the film’s R rating) largely stayed away. After opening to $805,000, “The Runaways” slipped a precipitous 44% and 63% in its respective second and third weekends. It has grossed $2 million to date, and may struggle to hit $4 million.

Apparition’s Bob Berney said that while he was “definitely disappointed” in the film’s performance so far, he was retooling its release to make sure the core art-house audience sees it. “It’s playing as an art film, and it’s not playing as a wider release,” Berney says. “We are reacting to where it worked and going from there.”

Some independent film releases don’t have to work outside of the local Landmark or Laemmle theater to succeed. On June 11, Roadside Attractions will release “Winter’s Bone,” one of the best-reviewed movies (and the winner of the Grand Jury Prize) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The hope is that the movie, a thriller about a young girl (played by Jennifer Lawrence) looking for her drug-dealing father in the Ozarks, could match -- and perhaps exceed -- the performance of the critically acclaimed " Frozen River,” which debuted in the summer of 2008 and grossed $2.5 million.

“It’s a great movie, with great reviews and the top prize from Sundance,” says Roadside’s Howard Cohen. “And I think it has a little bit of a genre appeal.” But as other distributors of specialized film look to offer alternatives to summer blockbusters, there could be a logjam at the art house. “I just hope it doesn’t become too crowded with other people doing the same,” Cohen says. “And it’s difficult for a movie like this that doesn’t have a recognizable cast.”

Focus Features has a very recognizable cast -- and a much more commercial premise -- for its summer release, the laugh-out-loud romantic comedy “The Kids Are All Right.” Starring Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo, the story about a lesbian couple’s complicated relationship with their sperm donor landed the biggest Sundance sale in January -- some $5 million. Opening July 7, “The Kids” is a favorite to become the summer’s standout specialized release.

“The film is a discovery, and that’s a critical factor,” says Focus’ Jack Foley. “And the summer can be a really good play time for high-end films.” Five years ago, Focus released “Broken Flowers” in the middle of the summer, and the Bill Murray art film grossed nearly $14 million.

But it’s another Focus film that offers a more intriguing comparison. The studio’s 2005 drama “Brokeback Mountain” grossed more than $83 million, proving that a large swath of moviegoers have no problems with movies whose protagonists aren’t straight.

“The country is not as separated,” Foley says, “as the left and the right would lead you to believe.”