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One chance was enough for `Once'

Adored at Sundance, the love story worried marketers. It's a snapshot of an indie industry grown wary.

July 29, 2007|KENNETH TURAN

"ONCE," the little picture that could, has been one of this summer's great art house successes, and no one is happier about that than I am. And no one is sadder about it either.

On the one hand, that success, both critically and financially, has been as gratifying as it's been widespread for this hard-to-resist Irish musical romance, written and directed by John Carney and starring the Frames' Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as Dublin street musicians who make emotional music together.

"Once" was recently ranked No. 3 (after "Ratatouille" and "Away From Her") on Rotten Tomatoes' list of the best-reviewed films of 2007, and its total box-office receipts have just passed the $5-million mark. That's roughly 15 times what it cost to produce, with millions of revenue-generating DVDs to come. There's even talk of an Oscar nomination for the film in the best original song category.

While those figures might not impress Jerry Bruckheimer, they are striking in their own way. "Once" has not only consistently been in the weekly box office top 20, it's also played on fewer screens than most others in that group: In areas where it's liked, it's well liked.

In fact, on the film's opening weekend, an Irish Independent headline screamed " 'Once' Beats 'Shrek' in North America." No, that wasn't a typo; "Once " did win the battle of per-screen averages, but it was on only two screens compared with more than 4,000 for "Shrek the Third."

I am delighted by all of this but also continue to be troubled by what a near thing that success was, by how tricky and problematic it was for "Once" to get into American theaters in the first place. What should have been a smooth path, with every distributor in the country fighting over this completely charming film, was just the opposite.

The reasons for this lack of distributor passion are troubling not just in relation to "Once" but for what they portend for the American independent world.

I feel strongly about "Once" because I was an early booster of the picture, which had its American debut at Sundance in January. Frankly, the film wasn't on my "must see" list, but I made it my business to catch up to it after everyone I spoke to said the same two things: "It's a small film," followed by a pause, a smile, and the phrase "but I really liked it." With that high degree of likability, I confidently waited for "Once" to be one of the first festival films to be acquired.

This was not the slow-paced "Old Joy" or some other Sundance critical darling whose acceptance by ordinary paying audiences was problematic at best. This was a film that real people, like the down-to-earth audience that went wild for it at an early festival screening in Salt Lake City, undeniably liked, so much so that "Once" eventually won the festival's world cinema audience award against stiff competition.

AS it happened, I almost waited in vain. Picture after picture got acquired out of Sundance, but not "Once." Finally, after the festival was over, Fox Searchlight, which had already snapped up three other films whose commercial prospects it thought more highly of, shrewdly took it on. How, I wondered, could all this be? How could the fact that "Once" was perhaps the best-liked film in the entire festival count for so little?

What I learned from talking to acquisition executives was that "Once" had a problem not visible to the nonprofessional eye. It came down to an inside-baseball conflict between two concepts -- playability and marketability -- not usually discussed outside distribution circles, a battle, as it turns out, that can be fiercer than the "Transformers" tussle between the Autobots and the Decepticons.

No one doubted, coming off the Sundance experience, that "Once" had exceptional playability; in other words, that people who came to see it were entranced. But everyone had questions about its marketability: The film had no stars, no big names behind the camera, no dazzling visual splendors or CGI toys. Worse than that, "Once" was not reducible to a glib high concept. On the contrary, the more you tried to describe it with words, the more it fell apart in your hands. How on Earth, distributors wondered, were people going to be induced to go in the first place?

I was no stranger to hearing worries such as these, but I associated them with the concerns accompanying major studio releases. When you are spending in the neighborhood of $100 million or more to make a film, you can't trust the audience to find your project, you have to have good, solid commercial elements that can be beaten to death in search of paying customers.

Independent film companies, and independent film audiences, were supposed to be different, supposed to be to a certain extent immune from, not contaminated by, these concerns. It isn't hard to find other examples of good, unusual smaller films -- recent examples include "Away From Her" and "Sweet Land" -- that haven't attracted the audiences they deserve.

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