'Tell No One' a word-of-mouth hit

Music Box Films scores with sleeper indie

Its title notwithstanding, "Tell No One" is becoming the word-of-mouth hit of the summer.

With almost no advertising, Guillaume Canet's layered mystery about a doctor wrongly suspected of killing his wife has, in a month of very limited release, earned $1.7 million and has still yet to fully widen. The movie has increased its box-office, often by impressive double-digit percentages, every week of its platform rollout.

But even more surprising than the box-office of the two-hour French-language film with a mostly unknown cast is the story of the company behind its U.S. release, Music Box Films, a startup distributor that grew out of a Chicago arthouse theater only last year.

The label's founder, a lawyer and real estate entrepreneur named William Schopf, came to the movie business almost by chance. He first only owned the bulding in which Chicago's Music Box arthouse theater was housed, then took it over when the tenant moved out.

Last year, Schopf decided to become a distributor -- in part, he says, because it felt like a smarter way to expand than opening more theaters, but in part because he wanted to do something for his employees. "It seemed like it would give some of the people who worked for us more career options," he said. Schopf also hired Palm Pictures veteran Ed Arentz, who now works full-time from New York.

After two micro-releases, the company picked up "Tell No One." The movie had a level of intrigue because it was based on Harlan Coben's bestselling novel. But it was passed over by some of the specialty divisions -- Arentz wonders if the film's commercial success in France worked against it -- opening up the door for a startup like Music Box.

Still, it took more than six months from when the company first showed interest last summer to close a deal with sales agent Europa Corp.

In some ways, the movie's success has even surprised its distributor. "We were a little taken aback by how well the film opened," Arentz said.

So what's driving box-office? Strong reviews from the New York Times, L.A. Times and New Yorker have certainly helped, particularly with the film's older demo. And the film does occupy a familiar genre that a host of conspiracy-minded mysteries and movies like "The Fugitive" have long dwelled in. Press days for Canet -- unusual for a small foreign film -- in New York and L.A. have also fueled interest.

But Arentz notes that there's only so much that can be accounted for. "I've love to be able to take credit for it but I don't think we've innovated too significantly," he said. "I think you might even call it a happy accident."

Observers also say one can't discount the effect of timing. With summer movies bigger and splashier than ever, and studio specialty divisions cutting their slates, it's easier for an indie to slip between the cracks.

"Tell No One" is enough of a sleeper hit that a number of studios have even asked to borrow a print, presumably for remake rights (a deal Europa Corp. is said to be interested in making). The success has also caused some specialty execs to look to it it as a heartening tale in difficult times --even if it also (mildly) stirs other juices.

"One's competitive spirit is slightly piqued when someone else else does well with a movie and you think 'Why didn't we have that?'" said Miramax chief Daniel Battsek. "However, when you stand back and look at it from a general point-of-view, "Tell No One" shows that this idea that people have stopped going to a certain kind of movie is just not right."

Music Box wants to react cautiously to the "Tell No One" breakout. In the fall it will release another French film, Emmanuel Mouret's romantic comedy "Shall We Kiss?" and plans to stick to its plan for 4-6 indie and foreign movies per year. "We don't want to create an overhead situation where we suddenly have to release films," Arentz said, adding, I've been suggesting that it's possible "Tell No One" may be the biggest movie we ever have. And I think we'd be okay with that."