Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bowling Alone, or The $20,000-Grossing Movie

Film history celebrates the little movies that could, min-budgeted films, ranging from THE EVIL DEAD to EL MARIACHI, that against the odds somehow claim their place in the zeitgeist and propel their makers to fame and fortune in Tinseltown (as if that should be the goal of every aspiring cinematic artist, which perhaps says something about American cultural values). And the films that gross $200 million or more (some made by those who strived earlier on with their handmade, personal credit card- and blood donation-financed movies) are equally venerated.

But what about the little films that couldn't...those that can't get a leg up in a marketplace where the arthouse, cradle for the indie hits of yesteryear, has largely been colonized by better-financed, studio-wetnursed "dependie" films like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and anything with subtitles is automatically granted second-class citizenship in its passage to America? In other words, the many movies that play New York and L.A. for maybe two weeks if they're lucky, with little critical fanfare, then basically vanish till reappearing, like ghost ships, on DVD? Who speaks for them?

Film Comment's 31st Annual Grosses Gloss, in the March/April issue, is as always a must-read, to see just how low the takings can go at the low-end of the cinematic spectrum. It's dismaying, if fascinating, to see how poorly some of my favorite films from 2005 fared in the trade winds of the distribution system. BROKEBACK, my No. 1, has grossed an excellent $82 million to date; my No. 2, MYSTERIOUS SKIN, a film with kinship to Ang Lee's dependie hit by virtue of its subject, a film that played long into the summer based on good reviews and positive word-of-mouth, still only made about $800,000.

And that's pretty good, by the yardstick of movies that may as well as not have left the screening rooms or festivals I saw them in, so dismal were the end results, which could not have reimbursed their marketing costs: The Korean satire THE PRESIDENT'S LAST BANG, $15,000; the bleak American indie, KEANE, $40,000 (both of which played the New York Film Festival); a documentary that missed the boat of that genre's current popularity, REEL PARADISE, $31,000 (results like that helped put its revered distributor, Wellspring, out of business last month); and so on. The depressing tally also includes starrier entries like PRETTY PERSUASION, NINE LIVES, and ASYLUM, which, despite name actors like James Woods, Glenn Close (pictured, with Close-in-the-making Dakota Fanning, in NINE LIVES), and Ian McKellen, sank well below the $1 million mark that means a more modestly budgeted project is at least treading water. It's a wonder distributors aren't charging critics to see them.

Which brings me to my $20,000 grosser, the bowling documentary A LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN, which went right into the gutter late last spring. It's not the best or the worst of any of these films, and not the lowest earner. [There is worse, much worse: Can a movie called THE OVERTURE only have grossed $2,254, according to Box Office Mojo? That's one show that never got started.]

Here's what I had to say about it last June on the Lighting Dimensions (now Live Design) website:

"Just as there's a trade magazine for every trade, so, too, will there one day be a documentary about every profession. Even given the current glut in docs, however, I thought it would take a little while longer to get to pro bowlers, but here comes A LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN (great title!) to prove me wrong. A little personal history: My dad was a terrific bowler, the terror of his league back in New Jersey in the early 1960s, and we used to play together. We also used to watch Professional Bowlers Association games, which ABC televised every Saturday for decades. Strike, spare, we were there, with pros like Dick Weber knocking down the pins and Chris Schenkel calling the shots on WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS. Alas, when my fastidious Mom threw out his crumbling lucky ball (a devastating event in our family), Dad hung up his shoes for good, and golf gradually replaced bowling on the tube. We weren't the only ones to give up the habit: After a recap of the glory days of the sport, the new film, directed by Chris Browne, picks up the story at its bitter end, with bowling cancelled by ABC in 1997 and the PBA slumping into a deep coma.

Then, a reawakening, as three Microsoft millionaires purchased the league for a fire-sale price in 2000 and a modest new version of the televised tourney reappeared on ESPN in 2002. The affectionate, if slightly jaundiced, documentary follows this seminal league year, one radically different from the past PBA, with the bowlers (mostly the same middle-aged schlumps of yesteryear) clad in snazzy new outfits and expected to cultivate marketable personas, per the Patton-like dictates of their new taskmaster, former Detroit Lions player and Nike executive Steve Miller. We meet a quartet of players as they make their way, match to match, from urban outpost to urban outpost. There's the Zen master of the game, world champion Walter Ray Williams, Jr., who is also the world's foremost horseshoes thrower (not the kind of thing you admit in mixed company); Pete Weber, trash-talking son of Dick (who died earlier this year), whose patented post-strike position, the "crotch chop," generates a little publicity as he obsesses over Williams; and handsome, media-genic family man Chris Barnes, groomed for stardom. More poignantly, there is the dark side of the force, the Sith of pro bowlers--Wayne Webb, who blew a million dollars in bowling earnings (back when the league was flush) on booze and bad business ventures and, with only a touring karaoke business to fall back on, attempts a comeback at age 45.

Magnolia Pictures releases A LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN today in New York; consider taking your bowling partner for a spin as it fans out across the country."

The press notes called bowling "the Rodney Dangerfield of sports." Clearly, where indie films, foreign-language titles, and less elevated docs are concerned in a splintered arena, Rodney has lots of company (and, speaking of Dangerfield, the film gets less respect than anticipated here, as an image I found from it refused to load). A LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN was released on DVD yesterday. You and your bowling partner missed it at the alley last year; now's your chance to win one for the little guy, who now, more than ever, can use your help.

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