Low budget movies triumph at summer box office -- Films like ''The Notebook'' and ''Dodgeball'' have stronger legs than blockbusters during film season

By Joshua Rich
Updated September 10, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Nick Cassavetes sounded a wee bit scared back in early June, three weeks before the premiere of The Notebook. Understandably so. Though confident in the quality of his period romance, the director likely knew that with no major stars, a car-chase-free plot, and a narrow target audience, The Notebook stood to be ignored opposite the season’s more expensive, heavily marketed, mass-appeal blockbusters. ”We’re opening against Spider-Man 2!” Cassavetes exclaimed.

Yet, while Doc Ock sported the summer’s mightiest arms, The Notebook proved to have some of the season’s strongest legs. Opening moderately well five days before the Spidey sequel’s bow, Cassavetes’ movie, budgeted at just $31 million, earned $77 million over the following two months — a surprisingly hefty take that points to an unusual trend this summer.

The season was marked by historic hits (Shrek 2) and maddening misses (The Chronicles of Riddick), studios happy (Twentieth Century Fox, home to six consecutive $20 million openers) and studios sad (Disney, which went from Mouse House to Flop House). But bubbling underneath those headlines were a wide variety of low- to moderately budgeted films, the kind that rarely make much money, which drew crowds thanks to extended theatrical runs and strong word of mouth — movies ranging from the corny comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story to the adult-oriented The Terminal; from the kid-baiting Garfield: The Movie to the indie freakshow Napoleon Dynamite; from the heebie-jeebfest Open Water to the gut-busting documentary Super Size Me. ”The luxury of making a [relatively] inexpensive movie,” says Toby Emmerich, production president at New Line (a division of EW parent Time Warner), which released The Notebook, is that ”if it does hang in there, you can hit profitability.”

The success of less heralded fare depends on keen distribution patterns and viewers ”coming out and talking up those films,” says producer Clifford Werber, whose A Cinderella Story benefited from strong audience chatter and little direct teen-flick competition. Produced for less than $20 million, the Hilary Duff fairy tale earned more than $50 million and seems poised to live happily ever after in the home-video market.

”Even though the summertime is very competitive,” Emmerich says, ”every day is a weekend, to some extent. A lot of people [have free time].” And a lot of minor movies thus have a better chance of being seen.

Especially, perhaps, as an alternative during blockbuster season. ”The industry has created a movie-watching ritual,” says Fox production president Hutch Parker. ”We’ve sort of trained the audience that we are going to event-ize every release. They come on Friday night, but by the second week they’re focused on the next event.” It’s now common for the typical Van Helsing or Village to earn more than $50 million in its debut, only to lose about 60 percent of its viewers after a week. (The growth of the multiplex virtually ensures that anyone who wants to see a new movie can score a ticket on opening weekend.)