When Fox Searchlight sent "Sideways" to Missouri and Kansas a few years ago, there wasn't much interest from the states' small-town movie houses. "They never played it," says Brad Bills, whose Independent Film Services books 400 area theaters. But the heartland reaction has been dramatically different to the studio's teen-pregnancy comedy "Juno."
This weekend, Bills is adding the film to theaters in Clinton, Mo., and Parsons, Kan. Dwight Gunderson, the film buyer for Minnesota's 240-screen Cinema Entertainment Corp., is shipping new "Juno" prints to Rice Lake, Wis., Albert Lee, Mich., and Columbus, Neb. Paul Silk, whose Paul Silk Film Buying selects movies for 220 screens in the Dakotas and Minnesota, says, "I'm adding 'Juno' theaters every weekend -- whenever we can get prints, we put them in."
The success or failure of most Fox Searchlight titles, like the vast majority of other specialized film company releases, depends on how the movies play in New York and Los Angeles: If you can't fill Manhattan's Angelika and Hollywood's ArcLight, you'd better speed up your DVD release.
"Juno" has done remarkably well in both cities, but the real story of its breakout popularity is unfolding in towns -- some tiny, some not -- sprinkled across the Midwest. And that surprisingly strong national appeal might propel "Juno" into first place at the box office this coming weekend.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 11, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
'Juno': An article in Thursday's Calendar section about the box office success of "Juno" said new prints of the film were being shipped this weekend to a variety of Midwest cities, among them Albert Lee, Mich. That city is actually Albert Lea, Minn.
On Monday and Tuesday night, "Juno" was the No. 1 film in the nation -- beating out "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" and "I Am Legend," even though the Fox Searchlight film is playing on slightly more than half as many theaters as those Disney and Warner Bros. blockbusters.
This Friday, in its sixth weekend of a quickly building national release, "Juno" faces the first wide weekend of "The Bucket List" and the new national releases "First Sunday" and "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie." "Juno" will be appearing in about 600 more locations than a week ago, bringing it to a total of about 2,500 locations.
Regardless of whether it wins in what will be a close fight for No. 1 over the weekend, "Juno" within a few days will pass the Oscar-winning "Sideways" as the top Fox Searchlight release ever.
With $54.5 million in ticket receipts through Wednesday, "Juno" now trails the 2004 wine lovers' movie by $17 million, and "Juno" seems poised to gross at least $100 million and possibly more.
Much of the film's popularity can be traced to audience demand in cities most Hollywood executives see only from 35,000 feet in their private jets. Last weekend, two of "Juno's" top 10 screens were the Celebration Cinema Grand Rapids North in Michigan and the AMC Lennox Town Center 24 in Columbus, Ohio -- both of which sold more tickets than the top "Juno" screens in either Boston or San Francisco. (The movie is also doing robust business in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where "Juno" star Ellen Page is from.)
"I haven't talked with anybody from any demographic group who doesn't like the film," says B.J. Smith, the film buyer for 4,488-screen Cinemark Holdings' Kentucky and Ohio screens. "Juno" business was especially brisk in Cinemark theaters in Canton, Ohio. "We made $13,000 in our first three days there," Smith says. "That's very, very good."
Gunderson says the film's enthusiastic word of mouth has made the film part of small-town conversation. "It's starting to acquire what I call name recognition," Gunderson says. "People on the street will say, ' "Juno"? I've heard of that movie.' And we are getting a really interesting cross section of people. We are getting both college students and the over-40 crowd."
Bills said he was initially skeptical of the film's heartland prospects, given its subject matter and creative pedigree ("Juno's" first-time screenwriter, Diablo Cody, was once a stripper and phone sex worker).
"I went into this film not thinking it would be a small-town picture," Bills said. "But my first reaction when I saw it was that it was the best film I'd seen since 'Little Miss Sunshine,' and I think it will not only be nominated for the best picture Oscar but also win."
When director Jason Reitman was making the film, he worked to make sure the film would receive a PG-13 rating. The ratings board of the Motion Picture Assn. of America asked that he change three lines of dialogue (sorry, we can't say them here either) to get the rating he wanted. The difference between the R and the PG-13 may be worth about $20 million in ticket sales, especially in more conservative states.
"Commercially, thank God it's a PG-13," says Bills. "Because in the heartland, a rating will make you or break you. Parents are much more cautious out here."