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‘King’s Speech’ appeals to more than arthouse fans

Fri., Feb. 18, 2011

There are multiplexes in the United States where James Bond is still considered a foreigner. Moviegoers in smaller cities often shun arthouse fare. And black ticket buyers are not usually the first to queue up for period dramas.

The movie exhibition business is filled with this kind of conventional wisdom, but “The King’s Speech” is proving it wrong at almost every opportunity.

This year’s Oscar race has been distinguished by the unexpectedly strong box-office returns generated by some of the winter’s leading Academy Award contenders. In domestic release, “True Grit” has grossed more than $161 million, “Black Swan” has crossed the $100 million mark, “The Social Network” has sold more than $96 million in tickets and “The Fighter” stands at $86 million.

Yet the performance of “The King’s Speech” – driven largely by lucrative returns from markets that don’t typically embrace such films – is perhaps the most extraordinary box-office tale.

The drama about stuttering King George VI’s relationship with a speech therapist will cross the $100 million domestic mark this weekend (it passed $200 million worldwide on Wednesday), and may not slow down after hitting those benchmarks.

If “The King’s Speech” wins the best picture Oscar, as many expect, it ultimately could outperform independent film blockbusters “Slumdog Millionaire” ($141.3 million) and “Juno” ($143.5 million) in North America.

While the film has done very well in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago, “The King’s Speech” is performing far above expectations in such cities as Tavernier, Fla., St. Charles, Ill., and Rocky Mount, N.C.

Buoyed by a growing number of pre-Oscar awards and strong word of mouth, the film’s box-office take declined just 6.2 percent last weekend, its 12th in theaters, from the previous weekend.

“It’s really had remarkable traction in all of our theaters,” said Chris Johnson, the vice president of Classic Cinemas, which operates 99 screens in smaller Illinois cities. “I cannot think of another film where everyone – everyone – has enjoyed the film as much.”

The film’s R rating (given by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language”) probably trimmed the film’s overall gross by 20 percent or more, distributor the Weinstein Co. believes.

“In smaller markets, it has not set the world on fire,” said Brad Bills, whose Independent Film Services books films for about 450 independent theaters in states including Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.

But whenever the film plays in slightly larger municipalities – particularly those that might have a college or university – the proceeds spike, he said.

Because many of the film’s patrons are older people who don’t see that many movies, theater owners are seeing ticket buyers who hardly ever visit the cinema, Bills said.

What’s more, they are patronizing a movie that to some Midwesterners feels like a foreign-language film, even though it’s in English.

“We’ve always had difficulty in smaller Midwest communities getting people to come see a British movie,” Bills said. “But I am suggesting to all of my clients who aren’t yet playing it that they should play ‘The King’s Speech.’ When you think about it, it’s a movie that everybody should see – it’s a feel-good story like ‘The Blind Side.’ ”

Dwight Gunderson, the film buyer for Cinema Entertainment and United Entertainment, which operates 240 screens in the Midwest and the South, says the film’s performance is even more notable than that of “Juno.”

“I’m even more surprised by this movie – I mean, it’s about British history,” he said.

Gunderson said one of the most unanticipated audiences for “The King’s Speech”has been blacks. He said the film was doing strong business at the Premiere Theatre 14 in Rocky Mount, where 56 percent of the local population is black, and the Premiere Theatre 12 in Goldsboro, where blacks make up 52 percent of the population.

Iain Canning, one of the film’s producers, believes audiences have been moved by the film’s story of transformation and friendship.

“People leaving the cinema are feeling that that day, that evening, the next day, they can go out and be a better version of themselves,” Canning said. “And they are going back to the movie with their friends and their parents.”


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