|Writer/director/star Jeff Daniels sets up a shot for “Super Sucker,” now in theaters.|
“You tell me why people didn’t go,” “Super Sucker” executive producer Bob Brown laughs in exasperation.
“If you start strong and then drop off, you know word of mouth is negative,” Brown says. “But the overwhelming majority of people who watch this movie really enjoy it. Enough people just didn’t give it a chance.”
Brown had high hopes for the theatrical release of “Super Sucker,” writer/star Jeff Daniels’ sophomore directorial effort, which won the audience award for best feature at the 2002 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
As the picture’s independent distributor, Brown followed the same formula that had worked so well two years ago on “Escanaba in da Moonlight”, Daniels’ debut film as writer/director.
Once again, Brown and Daniels’ company, Purple Rose Films, booked the theaters themselves. Again they opened on Super Bowl weekend in a Midwest-only release.
“Escanaba” broke Michigan box office records in 2001. Made for $1.8 million, distributed for another $400,000, the movie grossed $800,000 in its first two weeks. It went on to a $2.3 million box office total.
“Super Sucker,” a similarly broad and earthy Michigan comedy, made $120,000 on 115 screens opening weekend, according to Brown’s figures. It was down to 46 screens by its second week, and had grossed $155,000 after two weeks in release, with only five screens booked for week three. Purple Rose sunk a million dollars into self-distributing the $4 million film.
So what has kept people away from “Super Sucker?” Brown’s not sure.
Wind chills were below zero across the Midwest when “Super Sucker” launched Jan. 24. Maybe that was the problem. Or maybe not.
“Maybe people are so used to the way Hollywood puts everything in your face, they imagined we would do that, too.”
Brown is alluding to the picture’s raunchy central gag, an alternate use for the “homemaker’s little helper,” an attachment to the vacuum cleaners that Daniels’ character sells door-to-door.
“Super Sucker” was slapped with an R rating for sexual humor, precluding the natural teenage audience for zany comedy, though the picture is less explicit than some PG-13 fare.
“It makes me more conservative in terms of what we’re willing to try next,” Brown admits. “Our next project will probably be something safer, a general audience, G or PG type of film.”
Despite a disappointing kickoff, Brown remains optimistic about the eventual financial prospects for “Super Sucker.”
“Our dream was to take the film nationwide, everywhere but New York and LA,” Brown says. “We ate our humble pie, but I think everyone can still get out whole in the end.”
Purple Rose is retargeting their efforts now toward art houses and other small exhibitors rather than multiplexes as they scramble to resuscitate “Super Sucker’s” sputtering theatrical presence.
“Super Sucker’s” video distributor and foreign sales agent, which were in place before the premiere, haven’t balked at the underperformance, Brown says, though the marketing campaign is being retooled. “[The theatrical release] will be described as a regional test, that we’re making the choice not to expand.”
Tennessee-based Monarch Home Video has the video rights to both “Super Sucker” and “Escanaba”. Showcase Entertainment, out of Los Angeles, is handling international sales.
Reeling from the struggle of the past few weeks, Brown hasn’t lost faith in the vision that “Escanaba” validated: locally based production and distribution, totally free of Hollywood control.
Purple Rose Films is headquartered in Daniels and Brown’s home turf of Farmington Hills, Michigan. Both of the company’s pictures feature an all-Michigan cast, starring company members of Daniels’ Purple Rose Theater (where “Escanaba” originally debuted as a play).
The crews were also mostly Michigan, plus a few Chicagoans, like “Super Sucker” 1st and 2nd assistant directors Eric Pot and Traci Lewis. Brown raised the money through private equity financing from individual investors in the area.
Brown didn’t originally plan to go into the distribution business. “Like all independent filmmakers I was waiting for a call from Miramax or Lion’s Gate,” he says. “But the offers that came in were pathetic. I wasn’t going to give the movie away.”
“Escanaba” was completed well under budget, so Purple Rose invested the surplus in prints and advertising, and retained the profits after exhibition costs rather than giving up the lion’s share to a studio. That became the model for “Super Sucker,” and Brown says Purple Rose is prepared to continue operating in this fashion.
“Independent distribution remains the surest way for a filmmaker to recoup production costs,” if you have access to capital to cover printing and advertising, Brown insists. “It’s just intimidating, not impossible.”
Brown cites two U.S. features that are slated for Purple Rose-style self-distribution this year: Barry Tub’s Texas rodeo drama “Grand Champion” and Francoise Velle’s “New Suits” out of Los Angeles.
Purple Rose is developing a distribution arm to acquire pictures made by other filmmakers. “We’ll do it on a win-win basis,” Brown says. “We won’t exploit filmmakers who are exhausted from production and desperate to sell. There are a lot of good films out there that would work if they ever have the opportunity to get off the ground.”