August 1, 2008 / 8:19 AM / 10 years ago

French thriller "Tell No One" a word-of-mouth hit

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Its title notwithstanding, “Tell No One” has become a word-of-mouth hit.

Guillaume Canet arrives for a gala screening of the film "Chacun son Cinema" at the 60th Cannes Film Festival May 20, 2007. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

With almost no advertising, Guillaume Canet’s layered French-language mystery about a doctor wrongly suspected of killing his wife has grossed nearly $1.7 million since opening July 2 in New York and Los Angeles.

The film, currently playing in about 77 theaters, made those inroads with Music Box Films, a distributor that grew out of a Chicago art house just last year.

Lawyer and real estate entrepreneur William Schopf, the label’s founder, came to the movie business almost by chance. He owned the building housing the Music Box art house theater in Chicago that he took over when the theater’s previous operator moved out.

Then last year, Schopf decided to become a distributor. In part, he said it was a smarter way to expand than by just opening more theaters, and he also 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. One of his first moves was to hire Palm Pictures veteran Ed Arentz, who now works for Music Box full time from New York.

After two microreleases, the company picked up “Tell No One,” based on Harlan Coben’s best-selling novel. It had been passed over by some of the specialty divisions, but it still took more than six months for Music Box to close a deal with sales agent Europa Corp.

So what’s driving box office? Strong reviews from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and New Yorker certainly helped, particularly with the film’s older demo. Press days for Canet — unusual for a small foreign film — were held in New York and Los Angeles. And the film belongs to a familiar genre of conspiracy-minded mystery movies.

But Arentz said, “I’d love to be able to take credit for it, but I don’t think we’ve innovated too significantly. I think you might even call it a happy accident.”

Timing also might have played a role. With summer movies bigger and splashier than ever, and studio specialty divisions cutting back their slates, it’s possible for an indie to slip in between the cracks.

“Tell No One” is enough of a sleeper hit that several studios have asked to borrow a print, presumably to consider a remake (a deal in which Europa is said to be interested). Some specialty executives even view its success as a heartening tale in difficult times.

“One’s competitive spirit is slightly piqued when someone else does well with a movie and you think, ‘Why didn’t we have that?”‘ Miramax chief Daniel Battsek said. “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.”

In the fall, Music Box will release another French film, Emmanuel Mouret’s romantic comedy “Shall We Kiss?” and plans to stick to four to six 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, “Tell No One” may be the biggest movie we ever have. And I think we’d be OK with that.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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