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In Battle for Screen Space, the Little Guys Are Losing


It's fall, the Serious Movie Season, and theaters were packed this past weekend with fans eager to see one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, "You Can Count on Me," winner of the Sundance Film Festival.

Never heard of it? Maybe that's because the film opened on a grand total of eight screens, and expanded to another 27 last weekend. There is a slim chance that this bittersweet drama about a sister (Laura Linney) and brother (Mark Ruffalo) in small-town New England will make it into your local megaplex--but only if it continues to rack up big audiences at small theaters.

And that's tough to do. Despite the diminishing profits of art-house movies--once known as "independent" films, now usually called "niche" or "specialty" or "low-budget"--a tidal wave of them continues to flood the market. The result is that very few ever find an audience, no matter how good they are.

"A film like 'You Can Count on Me' is one of the best films I've seen this year. You sit there watching it and you want to tell all your friends about it, but how many people will get to see it?" asks Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tallies box-office results. "At its widest point I don't know if it'll be in 2,000 theaters."

Paramount Classics put the film in additional theaters based on its encouraging opening, and after that, "you just don't know," says studio head David Dinerstein. "The question is: How wide can this go at the end of the day? Can it cross over?"

Increasingly, the answer for art-house movies is, probably not.

Of the fall films, only the crowd-pleasing "Billy Elliot"--about a working-class kid striving to be a ballet dancer--has been sneaking its way out of tiny theaters into larger ones, so far bringing in about $8.4 million. The film cost $11 million.

A study last month by Variety found that the box office for art-house films is down a massive 15% compared with last year. Even more worrisome for studio executives: Ticket sales for specialty films are down 31% overall since 1990, even as the number of films released has gone up.

(Variety considered movies released on fewer than 600 screens as art-house fare.)

That is in sharp contrast with the overall picture. The box-office total for all movies is up significantly over the past 10 years, from about $5 billion to $7.5 billion.

The weekend of Nov. 11-12 was typical. Of the 13 films that opened across the country, most were obscure titles such as "Looking for an Echo" and "Rebels With a Cause." None of those is likely to make it to multi-screen theaters, where most audiences see movies. Instead, those theaters are taken up by the Adam Sandler comedy "Little Nicky," the remake of "Charlie's Angels" and "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Even when large exhibitors are willing to take specialty films, the studios that release them are often reluctant to spend the millions of dollars needed to advertise them, especially when the film is commonly yanked off the marquee within a couple of weeks.


The art-house business "is in the worst shape it's been in in years, there's no doubt about that," says Mark Gill, who heads Miramax's West Coast operation. "There are far too many movies opening every weekend. Because there's more of a squeeze at theaters, it's almost impossible to hit critical mass, for a movie to galvanize the public and make them want to go. Everywhere you look is another ad, another five pieces of publicity for another art-house film."

With the fall season about halfway done, art-house schedules are littered with the carcasses of films that were expected to perform well. "Girlfight," about a young Latina boxer, won a prize at Sundance and had hugely favorable reviews, but took in only $2.8 million at the box office. "Woman on Top," Fox Searchlight's romantic comedy about a Brazilian chef starring Penelope Cruz, had a huge marketing push but took in only $5 million (despite an $8-million budget). Miramax's disastrous "The Yards," starring Joaquin Phoenix, had some positive word of mouth but is quickly bottoming out after only four weeks at the theater, struggling around $1 million. The movie cost $20 million to make.

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