A modestly budgeted independent film documentary about a pop culture phenomenon that played out half a century ago is out-grossing multimillion dollar major studio feature films, proving anew a time-honored music industry adage, "Never underestimate the power of the Beatles."
Ron Howard's new documentary, "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years," has played so strongly during its first week in theaters that virtually all are holding it over for at least a second week, and the film's distributor is nearly doubling the number of screens it will be shown on beginning Friday.
"Any day when this little film can out-gross studio films in 48 of the top 50 theaters is a good day," Richard Abramowitz, president of the film's distributor, Abramorama , told The Times on Wednesday. "And by tomorrow, it will be 49 out of the 50."
In the first three days after opening on 85 screens on Friday, Sept. 16, "Eight Days a Week" grossed $622,410, for a per-screen average of $7,322, Abramorama reported. Factoring in preview screenings on Thursday, the total gross through Sunday came to $771,154.
As of Wednesday, the film's box-office total had reached $923,312, putting it on track to cross the $1 million mark on Thursday, Abramowitz said.
He noted the unusual rollout that doesn't conform to conventional film-release practices. Many theater operators who had only committed to single-night screenings last week added a second night on Monday, and many also held the film over for the full week and are now committing to a second week of showings. It will expand to nearly 200 theaters starting Friday, Abramowitz said
"The weekend was very strong," he said, "but we're also seeing solid audiences at the weekday screenings. I went to a 3:45 screening at a theater here [in New York] on Monday, and there were about 80 people there. The manager said 'You should have seen it at noon.'"
"Eight Days a Week" also has generated generally positive reviews, scoring a 97% positive rating at RottenTomatoes.com and 72% at Metacritic.com.
The distributor has not conducted demographic surveys on the makeup of the audience for the film — "From a commercial sense, it's almost irrelevant to have that kind of data," Abramowitz said — but anecdotally I have seen younger people, teenagers, at many of the theaters I've checked.
"I overheard one girl, who was probably about 14, walking out with her dad and saying 'That music was unbelievable. Paul is my favorite, but Ringo is so cute!' It's amazing to see how some things never change."
He also said audiences are often responding tangibly to the section of the film that outlines the Beatles' contract rider specifying the group would not play to segregated audiences, a fact of life in many parts of the U.S. when the band was on tour between 1964 and 1966.
"That's been particularly gratifying," Abramowitz said. "There's a line where one of them says something like 'We just play to people,' and I've heard spontaneous applause in response, because it's a particularly sensitive time in this country's history right now.
"You think back to how evolved these guys were, socially and politically," he said. "When we think about all the changes they generated in our culture, it's usually about music and fashion and things like that. So to think that 50 years ago they took a stand like that, when it clearly did not have any commercial value to them, it's quite remarkable."
Abramorama booked "Eight Days a Week," and the companion 30-minute concert film "The Beatles at Shea Stadium" documenting a 1965 performance before what was at the time the largest audience for concert in history, into a network of theaters that didn't include major exhibitor chains such as Regal, AMC, Cinemark and Landmark. That was due to an arrangement in which Howard's film also became available for streaming on Hulu as of Sept. 17.
It has made for a strong week of Beatles in the entertainment world, as the companion album, "The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl," recorded during shows in 1964 and 1965, entered the Billboard 200 Albums chart at No. 7.
Producer Giles Martin, the son of the Beatles original producer George Martin, has overseen the audio for the Hollywood Bowl album as well as "Eight Days a Week" and the Shea Stadium film. He told The Times it was a major challenge to pull quality sound from original live recordings made under adverse conditions, with the volume of fans' screams famously likened by his father to the sound of jet aircraft.
But in particular with the Shea Stadium film, for which many performances were subsequently rerecorded in a London studio and overdubbed when the film was shown on television in 1967, he and his team were able to restore live-performance recordings to all the songs for the new edition of that document, which is only being shown in theaters.
"We found the original tapes, which were pretty bad," Martin told The Times in a separate interview, "and we had the repaired versions, which also were pretty bad."
"But now the Shea Stadium film is all using their live performance, unlike the original, which had replaced the live audio with big chunks from the Hollywood Bowl tapes or the rerecorded material."
Martin noted that some of the performances are still hybrids incorporating bits of studio recordings because portions of the live audio were unusable. Such was the case with "Act Naturally," which for the original airing of the film used the Beatles studio version replacing the live audio. Now, Ringo Starr's live vocal is blended with studio recording of the instrumental accompaniment.
"The response to the movie and to the Hollywood Bowl album is just amazing," he said, "more than I had expected. It's great to see that people are being so emotionally touched by it."
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