Did Moviegoers Show 'Two Lovers' Any Love After Actor's PR Debacle?

Limited Release More Likely to Blame for Small Box Office Than Joaquin Phoenix's Much-Buzzed-About Appearance on Letterman

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Has Joaquin Phoenix put to rest the shop-worn maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity following his much-talked about appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman" last week?

The two-time Oscar nominee was a guest on Mr. Letterman's CBS program to ignite interest in his new -- and, if he is to be believed, final -- film, "Two Lovers," and his bizarrely hirsute appearance certainly drew attention to the tiny art-house film. Indeed, it was Mr. Phoenix's failure as a talk-show guest that made him a viral internet smash: Google News tallies some 1,061 stories carrying descriptions of his hapless, deer-in-spotlights moment. A YouTube video clip of his "Late Show" appearance had scored almost 1.3 million views only 24 hours after it was posted.

So did all that attention help the film's Valentine's Day-weekend opening? "Two Lovers" has grossed only $120,000 domestically, with $95,000 of that coming from its release in only seven theaters. But that amounts to an average of $13,500 per theater, which is outstanding for such a limited opening, and it clearly would have done much better on the art-house circuit if it had gotten a wider release.

Available on VOD too
Unfortunately for Mr. Phoenix, "Two Lovers" has been available via video-on-demand, or VOD, on most major cable systems throughout the country for the past three weeks. As a result, insiders told Advertising Age, major theater chains across the country have refused to carry the film for competitive reasons.

The film is being financed by billionaire Mark Cuban's 2929 Productions, which seeks to maximize movie-marketing dollars and public interest by releasing its films in Mr. Cuban's Landmark Theaters art-house chain and on pay-per-view simultaneously. Most major theatrical exhibition chains consider releasing a first-run film through pay-per-view a threat to their longtime business model. So few, if any, are expected to change their policy toward "Two Lovers," regardless of how much interest Mr. Phoenix's "Late Show" appearance generated.

One "Two Lovers" production insider said the much-buzzed-about film will be able to expand to, at most, just a couple hundred screens in the weeks to come, and then only in low-grossing mom-and-pop operations.

Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, the film's distributor, did not return calls by deadline. But Mr. Cuban responded to an e-mail query, saying: "HDNet's Ultra VOD is turning the economics of movies around. 'Two Lovers' is a great experience in theaters and we think it will grow an audience there. It's a great experience for those who can't make it to the theater."

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