Picture perfect launch for Picturehouse's 'Rose'

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"Rose" report: Blockbuster sequels may be dominating this summer's marketplace, but as Picturehouse's picture perfect launch for "La Vie En Rose" last weekend shows, there's room for smart films, too.

With "Rose" blossoming to nearly $180,000 at eight theaters -- an impressive $22,481 per theater average, especially for a subtitled film -- the French drama about the legendary Edith Piaf's tragic life is off to a very encouraging start. Not only is "Rose" positioned for boxoffice success, but it's already generating an awards buzz that should make it a contender in some key Oscar and Golden Globe races later this year, particularly in the best actress category for Marion Cotillard's stunning performance as Piaf.

Written and directed by Olivier Dahan and produced by Alain Goldman, its adaptation and dialogues are by Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman. "Rose" also stars Sylvia Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Jean-Paul Rouve and Gerard Depardieu.

Having focused here April 28 with Dahan on the making of "Rose" after enjoying an early look at the film, I was happy to have an opportunity to talk to Picturehouse president Bob Berney on Monday about what went into orchestrating the company's terrific opening of the picture.

"I'm really happy because, as always, you're concerned when you have a French language film if the American public can accept it," Berney told me. "But I think in this case (they are) because with Piaf people know her music and it's such a representation of Paris that it sort of crosses over. It's not a normal foreign film crowd. I think people are very interested. And it worked in all the markets we opened in.

"We opened New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and it also opened in Toronto, although that's (through) a different company -- it's TVA. In New York, of course, we had to be at The Paris Theatre. We were at The Paris, Angelika and Chelsea. And in Los Angeles we were at the ArcLight and the Royal. Both places did extremely well. In San Francisco we were at the Clay and the San Francisco Center. The word of mouth each day was good. I was at most of the theaters in New York listening to the reaction and people love it. The film ends with kind of a stunning finale and people were just kind of shocked for a while and then applause broke out in the theaters, which is rare outside of a festival or a premiere. I think a lot of this is just based on Marion Cotillard's really outstanding performance. We've had reviews such as (the one by) Stephen Holden in The New York Times basically saying it's the greatest transformation of a portrayal ever."

Holden's quote in the film's print ads reads: "The most astonishing immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another I've ever encountered in a film." The same ads quote Peter Travers of Rolling Stone as saying, "Marion Cotillard goes to the front of the line for every best actress award out there."

Cotillard, by the way, is very attractive in real life and looks nothing like Piaf. "It's amazing," Berney observed. "It reminds me a bit of when we had 'Monster' with Charlize Theron and people almost couldn't believe it was her when you see her in the movie. And I think it's the same thing with Marion. You see Piaf as this sort of petite, hunched over (figure) after the ravages of arthritis and drugs and alcohol and hard living. And Marion is this tall gorgeous young woman and you can't believe the transformation. It's been impressive as we've done these premieres and it's promoted for her to come out after the screening. And people just can't believe it. They're in shock.

"And I think because of that the word of mouth has been very strong. We had a lot of screenings in advance and I think that really helped us with want-to-see. I think when you hear the music -- even if you don't know exactly who it is or her story -- people know the key songs (like ) 'La Vie En Rose' or 'No Regrets' ('Non, je ne regrette rien'). So it's very emotional. And I think Olivier Dahan, the director, just kind of created a movie that's like a song. It's definitely not a linear biopic. It's a very, very strange way (of) almost looking back on your life and the things that come into your memory at the end. It's done like a song, I think, and it captures what a song meant to her and her sort of transformation of picking what songs would be her signatures and her hits."

Looking back at my interview in April with Dahan, I found his take on how he approached telling Piaf's story: "I really wanted to make something very emotional with a kind of transition between the sequences that could only be emotional. So that was the main point for me. I found that way of going backwards for a while in her life was a good way to juxtapose the emotions more than the facts. I was feeling more the emotional line rather than the actions and the facts. From the very first page I just knew that I didn't want to write a biopic of her, but an intimate portrait."

"I think it's a high wire act to do this kind of memory movie," Berney pointed said about Dahan's way of telling Piaf's story. He's got some very unusual stunning visuals that are very experimental, including one scene where you actually don't hear her for a while. It's sort of like to show that her voice is missing in one place. He goes very experimental in places. I think as a visual stylist he really has the goods."

How does Picturehouse move "Rose" along now to make the most of this great start? "What we're doing is this Friday we're adding about 60 prints, including an expansion in L.A., New York and San Francisco where we already opened, but then opening some of the top next markets (like) Washington, D.C., Philly, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Dallas and Minneapolis. So we'll be in probably 12 markets and up to 60 runs. Then we add another probably equal amount on the 22nd. What we hope is that the national reviews and acclaim obviously are noticed in these other markets. There's been some awareness of the numbers by exhibitors that the per screen average is impressive. And Marion and the director have also banked a lot of interviews when they were traveling through the states.

" I think within the specialized field it's a great time (to have this film in theaters). There's not a lot of competition. You know, the blockbusters are out there, but I think there's a really solid audience that has either seen the blockbusters or (that is) a little tired of them and wants something different. I've always found early June to be a fantastic time if you have counter-programming or an alternative film. We had very good success (in early June) last year with (Robert Altman's final film) 'A Prairie Home Companion' and we opened 'Whale Rider' then (in early June 2003). So it's a nice slot for an independent film to be in to be something either alternative or if you've seen the big ones something very different."

In fact, Berney added, "Even if you go to every blockbuster, you've probably gone to them by now. We were just thinking, there's something there for a different audience. I think the numbers bear it out and show that it's a national thing, not just New York. It's especially interesting because Piaf had a New York connection (in that) she lived here for a while, as depicted in the film. I found it interesting in the film that she also lived in Malibu for a while, which I didn't know. Also, we're finding that people are moved by the drama. She was so theatrical in her presentation and singing and the way she looked. I think that's why it works with Olivier's style. She was really theatrical and dramatic in every way. You couldn't have a more dramatic tragic lifetime of events and I think his style fits really well with that. It's very big."

Moreover, Piaf's tormented personal life seems particularly relevant to today when so many prominent celebrities are making headlines with their addictions to drugs and alcohol and their passion for driving while under the influence. "I agree," Berney said. "When I first thought about it, I (wondered), 'How are people going to relate to this (behavior) in the past?' But, in truth, she was a rebel in trouble and I think that's very modern."

Asked how the film came to Picturehouse, Berney explained, "Last year at Cannes Sara Rose, who's our head of acquisitions, and I saw a 10 minute piece of the film. They'd probably filmed most of it (by that point), but they hadn't edited it. We saw one of the scenes where she finds out that there's been a plane crash (involving the man she loves), a really dramatic scene. For us, just that brief performance (was enough). We just got chills. We thought, 'If she can pull that scene off, we have to do it.' We normally don't pre-buy foreign language films. We usually see them at a festival. But we were just so moved by the 10 minutes that we decided to make a deal for the States well in advance.

"So we did it at Cannes a year ago and waited and waited and finally saw the film in early January just before it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival opening night. I think all of our hopes and dreams were vindicated when we saw it because we were really happy. But, you know, you're nervous because you never know seeing that small amount of a film (what the whole movie will be like). And the script's in French -- even though it was translated -- so it was hard to get a grip on how he would do it 'till we saw that 10 minutes."

Now that critics and industry insiders have had a look at "Rose," the movie's starting to generate a strong buzz for its awards season potential. "I think almost every review has said that Marion has just sort of leaped to the top of the contenders for all sorts of awards," Berney said. "I think it's true given the quotes and the reactions. It's just amazing. So I think she'll be a contender. I think Olivier could be (a directing contender) and it could possibly be in the foreign language category, too, although, as you know, the process is (that a film) has to be nominated by its country. So we'll see if all the politics fall in right, but I certainly think it's a candidate. I think for Marion's performance, everybody who's seen it has felt she should be given awards. Usually (official selections by countries for Oscar's foreign language film race) happen by August or September so we'll know soon."

Asked what Picturehouse is doing in its marketing of "Rose," Berney replied, "One thing we're doing is using the soundtrack to try to reach a both broader and younger audience that may not have known her music before. I think using that, as we discussed before, (is helpful in) getting people to know a little about her when you read the notes on the soundtrack about her rebellious nature and that she was against the grain in every way. I think this resonates with a younger audience. Also, with the older audience that does know a bit about her, hearing the music really gets you in the mood to want to see the film and know more about her life.

"Obviously, the publicity about Marion -- the way she looks in person compared to the role -- has been a fantastic way to promote the film. People are just so impressed that she transforms so much. So really through kind of leading through the performance, through the unusual direction and then the soundtrack has really been the way to show that the film is something very, very different in kind of a sea of more formulaic sequels for the summer. I think the way we've really been selling the film (is) as an alternative."

Another challenge Picturehouse faced with "Rose" is the fact that it's in French with English subtitles. "I think what helped us with that," Berney said, "is the visual style of Olivier's storytelling kind of trumps that issue. I think we saw the same thing earlier this year with our release of (Guillermo del Toro's) 'Pan's Labyrinth.' Everyone said, 'Look, it's Spanish language, it's period, it's dark, it's violent.' But yet Guillermo's storytelling ability and the visual style trumped all that. It drew people in. I think it's the same thing for this film. If the director and the actors can so visually grab an audience with the images then it pulls you into the story and you forget you're reading and it becomes less of an issue. I think that's what we're dealing with here. I think people are really blown away by the look and the intensity of the movie."

"Rose" is just one of quite a few films Picturehouse is releasing in the next few months. "We have a busy summer," Berney pointed out. "We've got 'El Cantante' coming up (Aug. 1, directed by Leon Ichaso) with Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. Again, we're talking about a musician's life. It's the life of salsa singer Hector Lavoe. I was just thinking yesterday that Jennifer and Marc were both in the Puerto Rican Day Parade here in New York. There were over a million people on Fifth Avenue partying yesterday and they (Lopez and Anthony) were on floats. It shows the culture is so alive and so music oriented. In a way, it's the same thing (as with 'Rose') -- the music kind of just pulls you into this film. And we've got some big stars, too. We're excited about that.

"And we have a film (opening Aug. 10) called 'Rocket Science' (directed) by Jeffrey Blitz that was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival. He directed a wonderful documentary called 'Spellbound,' which did very well (in 2002 about teens trying to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee). This is his first narrative film. It's very personal and quirky. It reminds me of films in the past like 'Election' and 'Napoleon Dynamite' that have such an unusual voice. I think that's what makes it rise above the crowd. This guy has a very unique style and voice to tell a story.

Picturehouse also has "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," directed by Seth Gordon, Berney said, "which is a documentary based on the 20 and 30 year rivalry of the greatest Donkey Kong players ever. You may not remember Donkey Kong, but these guys do! It's a world that you just can't believe of competitiveness and score keeping and who-has-the-record? And within that world there's some quite insane people -- you couldn't write it! It's great that it's a documentary because no one would believe you. It becomes a Shakespearean almost 'Star Wars' kind of good and evil battle between the champion and the challenger. So we have a very, very busy summer coming up."

Looking beyond this summer, the list of Picturehouse titles on release schedules now circulating fills a full page whereas a year ago there was very little on the young company's slate. "It's really great," Berney told me. "You know, Picturehouse is only 2 years old. Obviously, the first year you're setting up the company and planning projects. It's great as you come into the second year when they're actually coming to fruition and getting out to the public. (It was just) last summer when we did 'Prairie Home' and got such great business and acclaim for that and then moved into (the success of) 'Pan's Labyrinth.' It's really gratifying to kind of be on the map and have exciting projects and great directors and producers on our team."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From July 19, 1989's column: "After predicting here June 26 that Columbia and Castle Rock Entertainment's 'When Harry Met Sally' would be this summer's sleeper, I was delighted to see the Rob Reiner film arrive to such a successful $1.1 million start in limited release last weekend.

"My pleasure, of course, was more than echoed at Castle Rock, whose first film this is, and at Columbia, which, under president Dawn Steel, is enjoying its best summer at the boxoffice in many years. 'The bottom line is that the phone was ringing off the hook with exhibitors calling me from all over the country to book this picture,' a very pleased Columbia domestic distribution president James Spitz told me Monday.

"'Sally,' which will expand its run to approximately 800 screens Friday, was launched with an innovative limited break at 41 screens. 'The normal platform run with Columbia has been to go with New York, Los Angeles and Toronto and then maybe two weeks later or a week later, depending on the feasibility, to spread the picture out into a national break,' explains Spitz. 'Because we did some research and found out where Rob's name really generates some very good press and publicity, we expanded that run and we went into very good show towns like Seattle, Denver, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Houston.

"'All these towns indicated they would respond well to a Rob Reiner picture. We were taking a calculated risk. After all, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal are not a real presold item. We all saw the picture and believed passionately in the success of this picture. We took the gamble and the gamble paid off.' A third distribution phase will come Aug. 4, according to Spitz, when 'Sally' expands to about 1,200 screens ...

"Although 'Sally' has drawn many enthusiastic reviews, there also have been some critics who have said they view it as being derivative of Woody Allen's style. 'Fortunately for us, the best critics are the people who go up to the boxoffice,' observes Spitz.

"'It's interesting,' adds Castle Rock principal Martin Shafer, who's clearly pleased with the results and with Columbia's marketing of the picture, 'that because a movie has a certain amount of intelligence and humor and the people are actually talking to each other, it's automatically compared to a Woody Allen movie. Can no one else make a movie with intelligence and humor? Is that forbidden ground or something?'"

Update: "When Harry Met Sally" wound up doing $92.8 million domestically and was 1989's 11th biggest grossing film. It is the fourth-biggest grossing movie for both Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. For Crystal (not counting his voice talent work in the blockbuster "Monster's, Inc."), it follows "City Slickers" with $124 million in 1991, "Analyze This" with $106.9 million in 1999 and "America's Sweethearts" with $93.6 million in 2001. For Ryan, it follows "Top Gun" with $176.8 million in 1986, "Sleepless in Seattle" with $126.7 million in 1993 and "You've Got Mail" with $115.8 million in 1998.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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